The Sounders are wired for the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs because to this team, the postseason starts before it begins in earnest.
For the seventh straight season, the Seattle Sounders won their final match of the regular season. In three of the last four years, it led to an MLS Cup berth and two MLS Cup titles.
If Seattle had this dormant in its DNA since 2009, the arrival of Nicolás Lodeiro midseason in 2016 truly activated it. The Sounders were fighting for their playoff lives the entire second half of that season, with each match more important than the last. By the time the postseason eventually did come around, the Sounders were simply playing at a higher level than anyone else in the league.
So when the Sounders entered Decision Day this year with just one win in their last six matches, they sent a clear message of their postseason intent with a dominant 4-1 win over the San Jose Earthquakes at CenturyLink Field.
“We’re aware that as we get closer to the playoffs, every game becomes a final and every game becomes an important game,” said Lodeiro. “The team unconsciously starts playing in a higher gear, so we can be at the level for those types of games toward the end of the season.
“We always have to be motivated because we are representing a great team in MLS, a team that has always qualified for the playoffs and is the current champion of the MLS Cup,” he continued. “There is no more motivation than that.”
The Sounders needed their stars to step up, and all three of Lodeiro, Raúl Ruidíaz and Jordan Morris found the back of the net to finish the regular season on a high note. The trio has put up MLS Best XI numbers all season long and delivered yet again when it counted.
“The four goals tonight was just what we needed,” said Head Coach Brian Schmetzer. “We had spoken earlier in the week about having the team put on a good performance and building a little momentum heading into the playoffs, and I think we accomplished that. I think Jordan getting a goal was good for him and his confidence. Raúl scoring, Nico scoring, doing all the things he normally does. I was very happy that the big players were able to contribute to the scoring tonight.”
Seattle will have a tough test immediately, as the No. 2 seed Sounders drew No. 7 LAFC in a rematch of last year’s Western Conference Championship. Despite LAFC’s low seed, one not necessarily befitting of their overall quality, the Sounders know they will need to be as sharp as they were on Sunday if they’re hoping to oust LAFC for the second straight season.
“They’re certainly not a seventh seed in our eyes,” said midfielder Cristian Roldan. “We have to respect them as well as play them without fear…We need big players to reach that next level. Great teams go from a good regular season team to a great playoff team. We need that extra level.”
Ruidíaz in particular is as clutch a performer as there is in MLS. He has seven goals and four assists in just six career postseason matches. In 2018, he scored a stoppage-time golazo to force extra time against the Portland Timbers in the Western Conference Semifinals. In 2019, he had a brace against LAFC to send the Sounders back to MLS Cup, where he iced the match with a 90th-minute goal. In 2020, he finished the season with 12 goals in just 17 matches, which was tied for second in the league.
“What impresses me about Raúl is the quality of his goals, the timing of his goals,” said Schmetzer. “He doesn’t take penalties, he doesn’t score three goals in a 4-0 win…It always amazes me about Raúl, some of the things he does and when he does them, rather than the total goal count.”
The Sounders will be hoping Ruidíaz can replicate that killer instinct in Round One and beyond as the club looks to defend its MLS Cup title. Seattle knows how clinical a team needs to be in crunch time, and the club is hoping that a statement win over LAFC can provide just the spark it needs to win more silverware.
“You gotta go beat the best if you want to be the best,” said Schmetzer. “LAFC is going to have revenge on their mind. They’re going to want to come up here and try and do what we did to them down there [last year]…The team that executes the way they want to play, that’s the team that’s going to come out as the winner.”