The Sounders will miss forward Raul Ruidiaz and defensive midfielder Gustav Svensson as they play Houston on Monday in a match with playoff implications. Both have joined their respective national teams while Nicolas Loderio's status is still uncertain, putting pressure on Will Bruin and company to carry the load.
Sounders forward Will Bruin has managed to put the ball in the net just as frequently against his former Houston Dynamo squad as he did for them for so many years.
And that’s one advantage for the Sounders heading into Monday’s home clash against the Dynamo, given that Bruin will start in place of Raul Ruidiaz. The Peruvian striker has been called up by his national team, as has defensive midfielder Gustav Svensson of Sweden, and both are certain to miss Monday’s tilt.
The Sounders as of Sunday were still in talks with Uruguay about holding on to midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro an extra day, as well as with Martinique about keeping Jordy Delem. But the loss of Ruidiaz and Svensson are key blows, with the Sounders looking to win their final four contests to maximize playoff positioning.
“You prepare with a Plan A and a Plan B,” Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said Sunday, confirming the absences of both Ruidiaz and Svensson. “Now we’re going with Plan B. But look, by this time of the season, the guys have been together some nine months since January and they all know each other. They all know the system. I really just want to make sure the focus is on our team being ready to play.
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“This is a very important game for us.”
The game initially was scheduled for last Saturday — falling outside the international call-up window. But the team in May moved it back two days, fearing a Friday concert by Jay-Z and Beyoncé would leave the field in less-than-optimal condition while the Seahawks had the stadium booked Sunday to play the Los Angeles Rams.
The Sounders had little idea at the time of how severely the decision to move the game could impact their final playoff push.
They entered Sunday fifth in the Western Conference standings, four points behind Portland with two games in hand. Defeating Houston would all-but-clinch the team’s 10th consecutive playoff berth while winning out the rest of the way gives them a shot at least of a first-round home match and possibly a bye.
But Schmetzer also remembers a home loss against Philadelphia nearly three weeks ago that ended his franchise’s record nine-game winning streak and might have cost them some key playoff positioning when all is said and done. The last thing he wants now is a repeat of a match in which the Sounders failed to convert numerous opportunities and then surrendered the only goal on a stoppage-time giveaway.
“That game was a gut punch for us,” Schmetzer said of the 1-0 defeat at CenturyLink Field. “I felt we should have come away with more (points) from that than we did.”
Bruin missed one of those late chances in the Philadelphia loss and will have to be sharp Monday filling in for Ruidiaz, especially with the playmaking Lodeiro still a possibility to miss the game. An eight-year Major League Soccer veteran with a proficiency for finding the net, Bruin now has 67 career regular-season goals, 17 of them in a largely backup role with the Sounders since coming over last year.
And in four matches against Houston, he’s scored in three. Two of those games were in last year’s Western Conference final, which the Sounders claimed 5-0 on aggregate.
“I think if we can try to dictate the tempo of the game and maintain possession and be smart with possession,we’re going to get our opportunities,” Bruin said this week. “It’s just a matter of converting them.”
Bruin admitted he’s taken to watching how Ruidiaz performs and trying to emulate some of that into his own game.
“He’s great in the box,” Bruin said. “If you watch him, his movement in the box, he’s always looking to score. He’s one of those guys that always wants to score. He comes alive in the final third. Just from playing with him and training with him, I’m just trying to watch his movements. He always ends up in good spots and he’s a very good finisher. He finishes with authority.”
But right now, it’s Bruin who will need to do that finishing.
The Sounders were already down some key players before subtracting Ruidiaz and Svensson, with left back Brad Smith and midfielder Harry Shipp both out with hamstring injuries. Shipp should be back for the regular-season finale against San Jose, but Schmetzer said it would be “a bonus” if Smith makes it back for that match and he is likely out until the playoffs.
That is, if the Sounders make the playoffs. Beating Houston will help them take a giant step in that direction, given they’d be five points up on the No. 7 L.A. Galaxy — a squad with only two matches left to play.
“This is a very important game for us,” Schmetzer said. “We can really solidify our positioning.”