TUKWILA — In many ways, the Sounders remain in the same funk that Real Salt Lake created 10 months ago at Lumen Field. When RSL coach Pablo Mastroeni had his side bunker in front of the goal, forcing a first-round playoff match into a penalty shootout where the visitors won 6-5 to complete the upset.
The goalless draw after 120 minutes was in line with the Sounders’ inconsistencies to close the 2021 regular season. And the Sounders remain inconsistent when it comes to MLS regular-season matches this year.
The Sounders (10-12-2) haven’t strung together back-to-back losses or wins in their past five outings and are a point below the Western Conference playoff line with 10 games remaining. With RSL returning Sunday to Lumen Field, the Sounders need a win not only as payback but to try, again, to ignite a playoff push.
“It’s a huge game,” said Sounders forward Jordan Morris, who has a team-high six goals. “I remember in 2016 when we were maybe in last place in the summer and we climb in to make the playoffs and go on to win. So, we know we’ve got to just catch fire at the right time and get going so that’s our goal.”
RSL (9-8-7) is fifth in the West but has yet to defeat a conference opponent on the road. RSL is also second in the league in conceding early goals (nine), prompting Mastroeni to tell reporters his strategy might be to force another goalless draw against the Sounders.
RSL limited the Sounders to three shots on goal in the postseason match last year, not attempting any themselves in 120 minutes.
Sounders midfielder Albert Rusnak was captain of the RSL team at the time but didn’t play because of a positive COVID-19 test. The offseason pickup confirmed Mastroeni’s strategy and was proud, at the time, that it was successful.
“Pablo is obviously going to try and devise a game plan against what he sees our deficiencies are, so let’s see how it plays out,” Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said. “I’d like to focus on maybe the first 15 minutes and come out on the front foot and score an early goal and get back to some of the things we did well early on in the year like dictating tempo when you go up a goal. It seems like we’ve been playing from behind in a lot of these games and it’s hard to come back.”
Schmetzer and his staff changed the training regime to guard against fatigue after the CONCACAF Champions League run and international games the starters played. He said after training Friday that he’s starting to see it take effect.
Sounders striker Raul Ruidiaz isn’t ready to play a full 90 minutes after nearly a month rehabbing hamstring injuries. But he had a smile brighter than summer as he left the training field at Starfire Sports in Tukwila.
Ruidiaz took the penalty kick in the MLS All-Star Game on Wednesday that gave the league a 2-1 win against Liga MX All-Stars. The Peruvian hasn’t scored an MLS goal since a brace against Vancouver in June.
“He’s in a good mood because he scored that goal,” Schmetzer said. “I asked if anybody was going to take the ball from him or were you going to take the penalty and he said, ‘No coach, I take the penalties.’ He was not letting anybody touch that ball.
“[Friday] was a very good training session. The guys looked very sharp. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.”
The Sounders won their last two home matches, which has keeper Stefan Frei feeling confident about the final stretch of matches. Half of the games are at home and three are against teams currently ahead of them in the standings.
But the team is still shaking off the 2-1 loss in Atlanta where United defender Andrew Gutman scored a banger in second-half stoppage time for the game-winner. The Sounders are on a four-game road losing streak.
“It feels like it’s in our hands,” Frei said of a playoff push. “The frustration and jubilation and all those emotions you feel throughout the year, we’ve got to kind of put that aside and go back to the bread-and-butter, which is working hard on a daily basis because ultimately it’s the only thing that’s going to get you results.”