TUKWILA – Allow Raul Ruidiaz to introduce himself.
That’s actually what he prefers when it comes to soccer. And few settings for a proper introduction will rival Sunday’s MLS Cup final. An estimated 70,000 fans are expected to fill CenturyLink Field while a global audience will either tune in to ABC or online to witness the championship match between the Sounders and Toronto FC.
They’ll all want a show, and Ruidiaz is their entertainer.
“Since the moment I came here, I wanted to play in a moment like this in a match like this,” said Ruidiaz as translated from Spanish through an interpreter. “I’m very happy it’s going to happen. I want to do everything to make the city happy and give something to the club.”
What that gift will be is part of the mystique of Ruidiaz, the Sounders’ striker – and it’s an unknown Toronto will discover for the first time Sunday.
While it’s Seattle’s third time facing Toronto in a MLS Cup final, it’s Ruidiaz’s first game against the Reds since joining the league in June 2018.
The fluttery feet and gorgeous goals – if the Sounders’ vision becomes a reality – will lead Ruidiaz to be known as the scorer who helped bring Seattle its second MLS Cup.
“(Raul’s) one of the elite forwards in the league; there’s no question about it,” said Garth Lagerwey, Sounders general manager and president of soccer.
“If I need a guy to finish one shot from anywhere on the field, he’s my guy. I’m going to take him, because he just gets it done, and he gets it done in big games. We’ve had some guys in the past that have been really high-profile guys that have not been able to score at the same rate that Raul has scored in some of these bigger games.”
Soccer has always been Ruidiaz’s gift.
Like many Peruvian youths, Ruidiaz started kicking around a ball before he could even spell the word. The middle child, Ruidiaz quickly saw how just running around a dirt field in his native Villa Maria del Triunfo neighborhood, playing soccer with friends, made his mother smile.
“I wanted to make her happy,” said Ruidiaz, whose older sister is a lawyer and younger brother also plays soccer. “I never thought I’d become a professional player but as I grew to 16, 17 years old, that’s when I realized I could make it a career.”
Being a crafty finisher separated Ruidiaz from peers. He spent countless hours working on taking shots with little time to set up a strike and scoring from all types of positions.
Ruidiaz’s lithe, 5-foot-7 frame also helped him quickly work around defenders to nail gravity-defying goals — each to the delight of his mother, who Ruidiaz calls his “Queen.”
An image of his mother’s face is tattooed on the back of Ruidiaz’s right hand, and he kisses the tattoo after each goal, which happened a lot as Ruidiaz rose to be a two-time leading goal-scorer in Liga MX and mainstay for the Peruvian national team.
The Sounders started to take interest in Ruidiaz in 2017, when homegrown star forward Jordan Morris was injured. The club signed Ruidiaz in June 2018 to a designated player contract, reportedly worth $14 million through 2021.
When Chris Henderson, Sounders vice president of soccer and sporting director, visited Lima after the announcement, it was Ruidiaz who brought gifts of chocolates, cookies and wine to show appreciation.
“My mom made me bring these,” Henderson recalled Ruidiaz saying.
“When I go to scout, I say, ‘Could this player do well on synthetic?’ ” said Henderson, referencing CenturyLink Field’s artificial turf. “Usually with the quick, smaller guys, it’s hard for a big, strong defender to mark a quick player on the turf. (Raul’s) so clever in his movement, and you could tell he took pride in his craft and what he did for a living. You can’t put a value on that, having a striker who you can count on in a big moment to score.”
Sounders center midfielder Nico Lodeiro didn’t need an introduction to Ruidiaz.
“I’m always watching the Mexican soccer league, so I knew Raul,” Lodeiro said of catching Morelia games, where fans nicknamed their striker “RuiDios” as in God of the goals.
“He’s a very good top scorer,” Lodeiro continued. “We’re lucky, because we have Raul in our club.”
Lagerwey often quips that he doesn’t sign “stars,” just good players. But Ruidiaz, 29, has always looked the part of a star, from his “volcano red” McLaren sports car that has a starting price of $200,000 to his shiny diamond earrings.
With Lodeiro’s help, Ruidiaz blended into a Sounders locker room that has players from 15 countries. The pair has also worked excessively the past month to improve its on-field chemistry to strengthen Seattle’s offensive attack.
Lodeiro, a 30-year-old Uruguayan, and Ruidiaz are already close off the field, and both are married with two children. Lodeiro notes Ruidiaz is funnier and wears skinnier jeans, though.
Teammates and pundits proclaim the Sounders’ Western Conference championship win against Los Angeles FC on Oct. 29 as the duo’s best together. It began with their control of the ball up top defensively, Lodeiro then able to set Ruidiaz up for two goals and scoring one of his own in the 3-1 upset at Banc of California Stadium.
“He always had it in him because he’s a team guy,” Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said of Ruidiaz’s defense.
Schmetzer intimated a similar tactic may be used to defeat Toronto on Sunday. The Rave Green defeated the Reds, 3-2, in April at CenturyLink Field, the only meeting of the season between the clubs. Ruidiaz missed the game due to a heel injury that ultimately marked the start of a series of obstacles that threatened Seattle’s ability to reach the Cup final.
Sounders veteran Chad Marshall, a three-time MLS Defender of the Year, retired due to knee injuries in May. Backup forward Will Bruin suffered a season-ending knee injury in June. Every FIFA international window saw a minimum of eight Sounders first-choice players called up to international duty. And in August, defender Roman Torres began a 10-game performance-enhancing drug suspension.
Ruidiaz credits friendships formed in the locker room for how the team pulled through to reach its goal in vying for the club’s second championship, defeating Toronto for the 2016 Cup at the Reds’ BMO Field. In turn, teammates credit Ruidiaz for how they pulled through on the field. In five playoff appearances since joining the Sounders, Ruidiaz has scored six goals.
“I’m a person of challenges,” Ruidiaz said. “I take it up as a challenge for myself to prove who I am. Thanks to God, I’m able to achieve it.”