Cristian Roldan, Sounders vs. NYCFC, 6.29.18
Photo by Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Know Your Opponent | The real Seattle Sounders have stood up

The last time the Seattle Sounders lost, it was to the Portland Timbers – a historic, 3-2 win for the current Cascadia Cup holders which, in light of what’s happened since that June 30 meeting, seems like ages ago. Back then, the Sounders were mired in what’s become their traditional, early-season slump, one that’s only augured good fortune during the last two postseasons.

For the Timbers, with a little bit of hindsight, the result looks like the apex of what was a record-tying, unbeaten run. The 12th of 15 in the Timbers’ franchise-record, unbeaten run, June’s match at CenturyLink Field marked the first time Portland had won in Seattle during the teams’ MLS regular-season history. Sure, the Timbers had claimed victory in the 2013 postseason – the first step in what might be the most important result in the rivalry’s story – but ahead of that early-summer trip to “the Clink,” the regular-season record had come to feel like an argumentative albatross. “But we won in the postseason,” became an annoying, obligatory caveat to be tacked on to every pre-derby inquiry, but with June’s result, the albatross was plucked.

Fast forward seven weeks, and the teams’ fortunes feel reversed. Sounders might not be as hot as the Timbers were when Portland last visited Seattle, but they’re not that far off, and they will certainly arrive at Providence Park for Sunday’s game as the league’s form side (6:30pm PT, FS1). Likewise, the Timbers may not be as down as the Sounders were, then, but there is a certain level of pressure that comes with entering a rivalry on a three-game losing streak – pressure that implies a loss at home to your fiercest rival will somehow, amid all the negativity that could otherwise be explained away, make this new slump real.

Unfortunately for the Timbers, this version of the Sounders feels very much real; at least, they feel far more real that the versions of Seattle that Portland faced before. The Timbers may have beaten their northern rivals twice, already, this year, but neither of those Soudners teams were near the caliber of the one that will come south this weekend. Players like Bryan Meredith, Jordan McCrary, Waylon Francis, Clint Dempsey, Victor Rodriguez and Will Bruin – all of whom started that game at CenturyLink – may, health permitting, be in the 18 on Sunday, but none of them are likely to start.

Instead, the Sounders have either gotten players back, upgraded, or found new combinations that work, just as they do every season. Stefan Frei is having a Goalkeeper of the Year-caliber season at the back, while the likely presences of Kelvin Leerdam and Nouhou Tolo brings Brian Schmetzer’s top fullbacks back into the team’s lineup (with AFC Bournemouth loanee Brad Smith potentially usurping Tolo’s spot, as some point). The midfield has come together with the return of Gustav Svensson from the World Cup and the resurfacing of Osvaldo Alonso’s form, while flanking attacking midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro – seemingly entrenched in Dempsey’s old role between the striker and midfield – with Harry Shipp and Cristian Roldan has complemented the team’s talent with a consistency that’s underpinned the team’s run.

The highest-profile change, though, has happened in Bruin’s spot, allocating the proven-MLS scorer to what’s become a healthily fortified bench. With the addition of Peruvian international Raúl Ruidíaz, the Sounders not only added one of the most prolific scorers over Mexico’s last four tournaments (two years), but they also, finally, replaced Jordan Morris. When the U.S. international went down with a knee injury before the season’s onset, the Sounders were left with a huge void in attack, one that thrust them to the bottom of the league’s team scoring charts for most of the 2018 season. With 13 goals in their last five games, though – all of which, Ruidíaz has started – Seattle no longer has the worst scoring rate in the league, even if they’re only a practical rounding error ahead of league-low Colorado.

Given Seattle only had 18 goals in their previous 19 games, that uptick is prodigious. Perhaps it’s even unsustainable. After all, which should an objective observer trust: an 18-game sample, of a five-game one? But this isn’t a five-game sample, really. The Sounders did this last year, too, recovering come summer to claim the Western Conference title. Two years ago, they did the same, turning a corner after changing coaches to keep the MLS Cup in Cascadia. With the addition of a player like Ruidíaz and the various upgrades that have slide into place behind the Liga MX standout, Seattle looks more likely to persist than regress to their spring selves.

This year, the only regression we’re seeing from the Sounders is a return to their tried-and-true, relying on the same rhythms that carried them in 2016 and 2017, as if they’ve settled into a groove. The real Seattle Sounders are here, now. The team we saw this spring? They just don’t matter, anymore.