Real Salt Lake’s matches against Seattle Sounders often have a rivalrous feel — at least from this end. To help us catch up with Seattle’s progress in 2021 is Dave Clark of Sounder at Heart, who I’ve been asking questions for years now.
While we didn’t talk salad, we did talk Sounders’ unbeaten streak, Joao Paulo, and Raul Ruidiaz.
1 - Sounders have yet to lose in MLS play in 2021. What’s the secret to your success? (And would you mind ensuring RSL breaks that record on Wednesday?)
The best way to not lose is to not get scored on. Giving up no run-of-play goals after nine matches, and just 4 goals total is impressive. The key to that has been the backline in the 3-4-1-2 that Brian Schmetzer put in place. Now settled with three great starters (Nouhou, Yeimar, Arreaga), a quality backup (O’Neill), and young potential the five-man rotation seems perfectly suited. Nouhou has taken on to his new role extraordinarily well and should be the frontrunner for the Chad Marshall Defender of the Year. Yeimar could join him in the best XI. There’s solid passing to go along with these defensive stoppers.
The formation shift is the perfect example as to how tactics and coaching matter — Nouhou is the best example point of that. Reducing his load in the attack has empowered him to become a better defender than the last three DoYs (just click on those sexy per 90 toggles). You’d think that opposing coaches would top going at him after a couple games of him expressing his love for the role. They haven’t.
Maybe a bit unsung is the buzzsaw in the midfield. Which, you kindly asked me about next.
2 - Joao Paulo seems to be an important engine for your side, especially with Nico Lodeiro out. How is he managing your midfield, and is that something that will continue when Lodeiro resumes play?
There are a few truisms about the Seattle Sounders. Brian Schmetzer loves players that engage in duels; Garth Lagerwey loves central midfielders who fill multiple roles; Sounders midfielders cover distance like Forrest Gump (that’s movie older than MLS? I may need to work on my references). João Paulo does all of that. Whether he’s a 6, an 8, or a 10 isn’t important to the Sounders. He’s in middle of the pitch, covering nearly as much distance as the expected top-performers like Lodiero and Cristian Roldan — Josh Atencio did the same in his two starts.
JP won’t show up in the traditional stats, nor first-level advanced metrics. Instead he’s just a fun player out there combining world class defensive pressure, some on-ball flair, and a well-trimmed beard.
3 - Raul Ruidiaz has played every minute of every game, and he’s scored seven goals in just nine games. What does RSL have to do to stop him from scoring? Is there any solution?
Welcome to Copa Raul. Snubbed by Peru, where to be fair he’s never been as successful as has been with Seattle, Ruidiaz is going to feast on the reduced squads around MLS during Copa America and the Gold Cup. Kinda unfair to MLS. It is what it is.
Raul is a fine poacher who will also take, and finish, the audacious shot from range. He doesn’t need many touches to be involved in matches, with just about 15 attacking third touches per goal this season. This makes it difficult to limit his ability to succeed. To stop him you have to stop him from receiving the ball. Since he doesn’t need high touch numbers to be potent, that can be frustrating for a defense. A 90-minute grind can break with a single poke of a toe.
Cleveland; Nouhou, O’Neill, Yeimar; Medranda, João Paulo, Rowe, A. Roldan; C. Roldan; Ruidiaz, Bruin