TUKWILA — Replacing Joao Paulo wasn’t going to be easy. The Brazilian’s rise to 2021 MVP finalist — his second season in MLS — reflects his talent on the field.

But the Sounders are still auditioning for a defensive midfield pairing nearly three months after Joao Paulo tore his right ACL in May.

Albert Rusnak effortlessly transitioned into half of the role when Joao Paulo suffered his injury during the CONCACAF Champions League final win. Joao Paulo was grooming Obed Vargas, the teenager from Alaska, to play alongside him. But Vargas suffered a lower-back stress fracture in June, and his return is undetermined.

Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer has rotated co-captain Nico Lodeiro, Josh Atencio, Danny Leyva, Kelyn Rowe and Cristian Roldan with Rusnak but hasn’t developed any consistency for a host of reasons. Roldan slotted in with Rusnak for last week’s 2-1 victory over Colorado, and Schmetzer intimated that he’ll keep the pairing for a few matches, beginning Friday against Los Angeles FC.

“I feel like every week it’s someone else,” Rusnak said. “Like the other guys, Cristian is an experienced player that played probably all of the positions except the keeper on the field. So he knows how to play that role, and I thought it was quite easy to play with him.”

Roldan could’ve found himself in the position again this weekend, because Rowe is out due to a one-game suspension for being ejected against Colorado. The Sounders collected the go-ahead goal while playing a man down in the second half.


As dizzying as the rotations in the midfield can be, Rusnak said the difficulty isn’t in finding rhythm within the pairing, it’s how the constant lineup changes shift the entire team.

“It’s the whole product,” Rusnak said. “We hadn’t scored in three games in a row [before the Colorado win], but we also conceded from the first chance that we faced in each of those games. Portland came to our half in the 24th minute and scored, and it was the same thing against Colorado last game [third minute].

“So it’s the whole group. You cannot point fingers at defenders or midfielders or our strikers. It’s the vibe of the group. If we’re defending good, I feel like we’re attacking good. If we’re not defending or attacking good, then the other one falls apart as well. It’s 11 guys on the field. Two guys are not going to win the game for us.”

Schmetzer has noted positives to each player he has used alongside Rusnak, who’s in his first year with the club. Roldan helped steady the midfield and control tempo against Colorado. But he won’t be a permanent fix because of expected national-team duty.

“The biggest difficulty is for [Albert], that he keeps switching partners,” Schmetzer said. “He would probably like some consistency, and I would like some consistency.”

Stickler for rules?

Schmetzer reiterated Tuesday that he didn’t have a problem with referee Rosendo Mendoza booking Rowe for time-wasting after tossing the ball over the ad board in the 47th minute against Colorado.


Rowe receiving an earlier yellow card for a handball meant the Sounders played down a man and will be without Rowe because of a mandatory suspension. The MLS Disciplinary Committee also announced Tuesday that Rowe was fined for failure to leave the field in a timely manner.

“The rules say,” Schmetzer said, then broke down Rowe’s actions.

Refereeing rules also state free kicks should be taken within the spot of the foul. Lodeiro wasn’t corrected when he quickly took an awarded free kick 15 yards behind where teammate Will Bruin had been fouled.

The angle was perfect for Lodeiro to beam the ball to midfielder Jimmy Medranda just outside the penalty box, the latter tapping an assist to forward Jordan Morris for the equalizer in the 43rd minute. Rapids players and coach Robin Fraser contested the play, but it couldn’t be reviewed under VAR rules.

PRO, the Professional Referee Organization, acknowledged Monday from its official Twitter account that an “officiating error occurred.”

“Everybody, the fans, we’ve picked that apart and I don’t see anything wrong with it,” Schmetzer said. “Their guy tried to toe the ball away to slow Nico down. You have the examples of when it’s a goal kick way in your defensive end out by the touchline, the goalkeepers always bring it in 10 yards. It’s a nonissue. Referees in that moment make their best decision, and I live with it.”


Injury updates

Sounders striker Raul Ruidiaz participated in parts of training Tuesday. He has missed the past three matches due to a right-hamstring strain.

Schmetzer said having Ruidiaz start against LAFC — the league’s Supporters’ Shield leader — is intriguing but added, “I’m not so sure the risk/reward is enough.”

Nouhou was held out of the Colorado match due to a “disciplinary in nature” decision. He was part of full training and is expected to be available for selection Friday.