BEAVERTON, Ore. – Andy Polo is used to the sight of Raúl Ruidíaz, just rarely in a different uniform. But on Thursday, when the Portland Timbers’ winger lines up on the other side of CenturyLink Field’s center line from his fellow Peruvian international in the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs Western Conference Semifinals second leg (7:30pm PT, FS1 | Match presented by Carl's Jr.), he’ll do so for the third time this season, an occurrence he and his three-time teammate may have to get used to.
Polo’s connection to the Sounders striker dates back to their first club, Club Universitario back in Lima, Peru. When Polo broke into La U’s first team in 2011, Ruidíaz was three years into his first team run and about to move another La U - Chilean titans Universidad de Chile.
The striker’s path would take him to Brazil and back to Chile, while Polo’s journeys would land him in Italy and Colombia. Eventually, the duo would reunite at Universitario and end up together in Mexico, at Monarcas Morelia, before their 2018 leaps into Cascadia soccer.
“I have amazing memories of my time with Raúl,” Polo said, translated from Spanish, in the leadup to the pair’s meeting on Thursday in Seattle. “Most of them are from our time at beloved Club Universitario.”
That’s where Polo, 24, developed his admiration for Ruidíaz, four years his elder. Like his national-team teammate, Polo is on the slighter side, measuring “only” five-feet-eight inches tall. But unlike his Seattle counterpart, Polo thrives in soccer’s wide areas or in midfield, where players his height are more rules than exceptions. Ruidíaz, at least one inch shorter than Polo, plays as a striker, often a lone one that’s tasked with beating center backs, who are often among the largest people on the field.
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Despite that disadvantage, Ruidíaz has thrived as a professional, having just finished a two-year spell as one of the most prolific scorers in Mexican soccer.
“We all know what he’s had to do to make himself into such a great goalscorer, to overcome the advantages that players much bigger than him have at that position,” Polo explained. “He stays moving, all the time. He’s always looking to score a goal.”
There was no greater evidence of that than Sunday’s opening score at Providence Park, when Ruidíaz darted across the face of Portland’s Liam Ridgewell to one-touch a Cristian Rolden pass into the back of the Timbers’ net. Ridgewell and center back partner Bill Tuiloma otherwise did well to keep the 31-time Peruvian international quiet, but the one occasion Seattle were able to get Ruidíaz the ball in a dangerous spot, he put the Sounders in front.
Polo has enjoyed his own success with his country’s seleccíon, collecting 16 appearances since his 2016 debut and joining the team this summer at the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. Despite sharing much of that time with Ruidíaz, Polo demurs when asked advice on how to slow his oft-teammate down.
“If I were a coach, I wouldn’t just worry about him,” he says, not dismissively. Rather, he offers alternative. “I’d worry about the full XI that enters the field.
“I’d be more concerned about the performance of my team, which would be the most important thing.”
Implicit in that is a plan Portland seemed to execute over Sunday’s final 80 minutes: cut off access; play your game; focus on what’s most important. When Portland didn’t take care of those things, Ruidíaz made his mark. Otherwise, the Timbers maintained an element of control.
Giovanni Savarese and his staff will have to preparations a bit further ahead of Thursday’s kickoff, but if there is anybody who knows what’s worked against Ruidíaz before, it would be Polo. From Lima to Mexico and up to Cascadia, the link between the two Peruvians has taken the attackers across the globe.