Sounders forward Raul Ruidiaz may not be in the running for Major League Soccer’s MVP award this season — but that’s because he lacks the stats because he missed half of this year’s league slate because of injuries.
Since returning in August from a second hamstring strain, the Peruvian international has shown he doesn’t lack that elite touch. He’s been slowly revving up for an MVP-esque performance like the one against Austin FC.
A brace from Ruidiaz helped the Sounders win 3-0 at Lumen Field on Saturday evening. The striker, who was in the running for the MLS Golden Boot last year, has nine goals this season. He received a rousing ovation from the announced crowd of 34,721 when subbed off in the 90th minute.
“You can feel him, tengo hambre” Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said in describing Ruidiaz. The phrase translates to “I’m hungry” in Spanish, Schmetzer noting the incorrect grammar. “He’s hungry for goals, not me, but him. That started well and a couple of little dips, maybe they were trying to get back into it, but the ball finally bounced our way.”
The Sounders have had trouble closing out matches they lead and that turned around against Austin. Sounders keeper Stefan Frei collected the club’s fifth clean sheet of the season, making one save.
The result didn’t move the ninth-placed Sounders (12-15-3) in the Western Conference standings.
In its second MLS season, Austin (15-9-6) is second in Western Conference standings and on the verge of clinching the franchise’s first playoff berth. But it is on a three-game losing streak and Saturday was its second match without MVP-candidate Sebastian Driussi in the starting lineup.
The Argentine striker started 28 of his 30 appearances for Austin, bagging 20 goals with seven assists. He was listed as questionable Saturday because of a knee injury, and Austin coach Josh Wolff didn’t bring him on until the 84th minute.
Jordan Morris was the backbone of both Ruidiaz goals. For the opener in the 12th minute, Morris cut a pass around his defender to Nico Lodeiro in the box. The midfielder was composed in slicing an assist to Ruidiaz at the mouth of the goal.
Ruidiaz was unmarked as he toed a right-foot shot over Austin keeper Brad Stuver’s shoulder. The score was Lodeiro’s 11th assist of the season.
In the 34th minute, Morris and Ruidiaz kept pace with each other on a drive toward the goal. Morris appeared to have a clear shot, but dished to a closer Ruidiaz, who tapped a left-footed attempt into goal.
Wolff made three substitutions in the 61st minute that didn’t shake up his side’s play. Jhojan Valencia was shown a yellow card for a bad foul in the 67th minute that appeared to result in a goal for Sounders defender Xavier Arreaga off a free kick.
On replay, Arreaga’s header bounced off midfielder Ruben Gabrielsen for an own goal in the 68th minute.
The Sounders (12-15-3) used the same lineup that scrapped to defeat Houston 2-1 at home last week. Second-year winger Leo Chu was also available after suffering a minor adductor injury and subbed on for Albert Rusnak in the 88th minute.
Former academy players Josh Atencio and Danny Leyva were what the Sounders needed weeks ago in holding the middle and giving Lodeiro space to pick off passes and set up plays. Rusnak continued to complement Morris with his play on the left wing and the Mercer Island star moving to the right side.
“Jordan had a good matchup against their left back,” Schmetzer said of Austin defender Jon Gallagher. “It was true. Jordan is faster, stronger. But his movement on that right-hand side was a work in progress. (Assistant coach) Preki worked on some movements in the final third to get Jordan behind more effectively.”
Schmetzer might be forced to alter the lineup for the FC Cincinnati at Lumen on Sept. 27. There’s a FIFA international window and Ruidiaz was called up by his national team.
Peru didn’t qualify for the Qatar World Cup, so there are negotiations to keep Ruidiaz stateside for the MLS playoff push.
“We will address that next week,” Schmetzer said. “Everybody sees Raul’s contributions to our team. He’s such an important part of our team. We could certainly use him against Cincinnati.”
Play was unaffected by smoke from the Bolt Creek fire near Skykomish despite a thickening haze around the stadium throughout the match. MLS doesn’t specify protocols for air quality and leaves some decisions, such as needs for hydration breaks, to a referee’s discretion.
The Sounders draped new signage around Lumen for the extended partnership with the Puyallup Tribe. The upper seating in the north-end stands had a banner that read “Emerald Queen Casino Pitch” with the tribe’s casino logo on a green backdrop.
In the Northeast corner, the tribe has their logo, including the salmon graphic and spelling in their Lushootseed language, with a green backdrop. The Sounders have their logo bookending the eastern upper deck seats.
Members of the tribe unraveled a green and white logo with the salmon that filled the center circle. It remained for the player walkout and was removed before kickoff.
Then Ruidiaz took over.
“Just clean finishes for him,” Morris said of the forward. “When he’s on fire like that, it’s so helpful for the team. … We still have a lot of work to do.”