Sunday’s match was shrouded in mystery for the Sounders FC.
Would the team’s emotional, midweek loss to Mexican side Club Leon for the Leagues Cup title linger? Are Seattle’s first-choice players truly fit enough for a fourth grinding 90 minutes in the span of two weeks? Could the Sounders win in Kansas City for the first time in eight years?
As the match at Children’s Mercy Park unraveled, Seattle showed it had the mental strength and on-field talent to piece together a high-stakes win after a devastating loss. The Sounders received goals from Cristian Roldan and Will Bruin in the 2-1 win against Sporting Kansas City.
“We could’ve easily said, ‘We’re on short rest, we’re away from home, it’s going to be a difficult game,’ ” said Roldan of excuses many would accept. “But the guys embraced the challenge, embraced that it was going to be a difficult game. We saw it in the first half. Guys were bought-in, willing to sacrifice a little bit of their game for the better good of the team.”
The grimy teamwork helped Seattle (14-5-6) leapfrog SKC for the coveted first-place spot in the MLS Western Conference standings with 48 points. The Sounders have nine matches remaining and a game in hand against Sporting (13-6-7).
“The games don’t stop, though,” said Roldan, whose team travels to play at San Jose on Wednesday and hosts third-place Colorado at Lumen Field on Oct. 3. “That’s going to be difficult but (the team) is ready to embrace it.”
Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer flipping his tactical scheme back to the beginning of the season helped. He used his first-choice back line and returned to the two-forward formation up top pairing Raul Ruidiaz and Bruin.
Bruin is unbeaten in his 11 starts this season and entered Sunday’s game with a 6-0-3 record when starting alongside Ruidiaz.
The Sounders had multiple chances early and SKC should’ve been called for a penalty in the half-hour mark against Bruin in the box. But as Bruin contested, referee Joseph Dickerson made clear he wasn’t going to get the call.
Seconds later, Roldan made it a moot point. The play started with a takeaway by Josh Atencio off a sloppy backfooted pass from Kansas City defender Graham Zusi. Atencio lobbed a pass to wingback Brad Smith, who dribbled to the box for a line-drive cross to Roldan. The Californian pinged a right-footed shot into the net in the 31st minute.
Bruin finally got a goal in the 55th minute. Sporting, again, gave up the ball in the midfield and the defense was in a scramble in front of the goal, Ruidiaz threatening to shoot first. SKC keeper Tim Melia swiped at that attempt, forcing Ruidiaz to readjust but lose the ball. Bruin used his height to connect with the ball in the air and head it into goal.
“Even with the loss of possession, we still had two guys on one. We should have easily taken care of that play,” SKC coach Peter Vermes said. “We have to be honest with ourselves. We were poor. On the second goal, our defending was very poor. We have to be honest with that. When you play a good team, they score. We do that to other teams as well at times but today they got us.”
Bruin has two goals this season.
Ruidiaz continued to pressure Melia, finishing with four shots. The Peruvian’s last MLS goal was in Dallas on Aug. 8.
“It’s been awhile,” Bruin said of reuniting with Ruidiaz in the starting lineup. “We started the year off strong and then I had the little knee issue and was trying to get back with the team. … We complement each other really well.”
Although some defending was suspect, Sporting Kansas City did pepper the Sounders defense with attempts as the match progressed. The club had nine corner kicks after not having any in the opening half.
Sporting’s goal was from captain Johnny Russell in the 60th minute. SKC had a free kick that bounced into open space in the box. Russell was in the right spot to hook a shot off Sounders keeper Stefan Frei and into the net.
Russell has scored in his past four home matches. He also slotted one in during SKC’s 3-1 win against Seattle at Lumen Field in July. But that was against Stefan Cleveland due to Frei’s knee injury that developed blood clots.
Frei had two saves Sunday to help the Sounders win in Kansas City for the first time since 2013. The Sounders defense was able to contain SKC striker Daniel Salloi, who leads his team with 13 goals and six assists this season.
“(SKC) is a lot like a Mexican side when they have momentum,” Roldan said. “It feels like you can’t get out of their pressure. Today, when we were under pressure, we were still composed defensively. We knew that we were going to be able to double-team out wide with the extra center back or with the midfielder helping out. Everybody was just bought-in.”
Seattle defender Nouhou returned to the starting lineup. After opening the season with Best XI-caliber play, he suffered an adductor injury and wasn’t selected to start in the Leagues Cup final last Wednesday.
The Cameroonian is part of a wave of returns the Sounders are expecting as they continue their push to the postseason. Schmetzer said forward Jordan Morris (ACL) should be in full training by the end of the week and believes co-captain Nico Lodeiro will be able to recover from his second knee surgery of the season in time for the playoffs.
But for Sunday, the Sounders were simply content reassuring that they’re a contender for the MLS Cup.
“There were some nerves out there, guys were a little concerned,” Schmetzer said. “We were under it a little bit the last 18 minutes and they stayed strong.”