TUKWILA — The character of the Sounders shined last weekend.
Playing down a player for 43 minutes, the team pulled off a come-from-behind win at Lumen Field against Colorado, which has yet to win a road match this season.
The Sounders’ talent? They haven’t shown that edge through an entire match since they dismantled Sporting Kansas City 3-0 at home June 25. A recent three-game losing skid has the Sounders again wanting to use a match against Los Angeles FC as a barometer.
“We’re trying to get out of this slump,” Sounders fullback Alex Roldan said. “We obviously got a good result last week, but in keeping that momentum going, this is a big test to push forward and use a win as a good momentum boost.”
The match is a Friday night spotlight for MLS. It’s the only scheduled league game and will air nationally on FS1. With an outright win, the ninth-place Sounders (9-10-2, 29 points) can momentarily move above the playoff line, with the rest of the Western Conference leaders playing Saturday.
To do that, the Sounders will have to have a standout defensive game against a surging LAFC at their modern-day rival’s Banc of California Stadium. LAFC (14-4-3, 45 points) not only lead the league’s Supporters’ Shield race but have improved their offensive attack since a 1-1 draw against the Sounders at Lumen Field in June.
LAFC signed forward Gareth Bale, a Welsh international who’s totaled 43 minutes as a sub the past two games and crafted his first MLS goal in the club’s road win against SKC last week. The Black & Gold have bagged 42 goals this season and are unbeaten (11-0-0) when they score first.
“It’s a fun, good attacking-minded team that has been doing very well so far this season,” said Sounders midfielder Albert Rusnak, who played against Bale in international competition with his Slovakian national team. “(Bale) is obviously very talented and very good and done a lot of great things in Europe and won a lot of tough competitions. Everybody knows that. But at the end of the day, it’s a 90-minute game and even the best players cannot have such a great game.”
The Sounders have conceded early goals in three of their past four matches but overall are among the league’s better defensive teams in only allowing 25 goals. Sounders keeper Stefan Frei was stellar against LAFC in June, totaling six heroic saves.
But the issues defensively are worrisome for the Sounders — especially when facing a motivated player such as LAFC forward Carlos Vela, who’s experiencing a scoring drought. He hasn’t tallied a goal since May and was a sub against the Sounders in June.
Teammate Chicho Arango has handled the scoring, pocketing a goal in seven of his past eight matches since May.
“The big thing for us is the backline,” Roldan said. “Defensively, there’s been some struggles recently. We’re looking to turn that around — making sure our spacing is right, our lines are good.
“(LAFC) has some talented wingers and attacking players. So, limiting their touches and the amount of looks they can get is important. Hopefully we can put a good shift in and that way we give our offense a chance throughout the whole game.”
Bale isn’t the only addition the Sounders will have to counter. LAFC also signed defender Giorgio Chiellini, an Italian international. He started his first two matches but, like Bale, is working his way up to full fitness.
The Sounders will likely be without striker Raul Ruidiaz because of a right hamstring injury. He’s listed as questionable for the match. Sounders midfielder Kelyn Rowe and LAFC midfielder Kellyn Acosta are serving one-game suspensions.
“If our guys can’t get up for playing against Bale, one of the best players and at one point one of the biggest transfers ever, it’s got to motivate you,” Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said. “It’s like (Sounders defender) Nouhou in the Africa Cup of Nations when he was going against (Egyptian star) Mo Salah. Nouhou performed pretty well, because you’re measuring yourself against the current best forward in the world. Hopefully our guys are spurred on by that, and we have a good performance.”
First-year LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo had a similar take for his team and playing the Sounders. It is on a three-game win streak and atop the league, but the Sounders ended their playoff runs twice.
Given the history, Cherundolo would rather not know the league standings and just have his team focus one half at a time — not even looking at a full match.
“It’s unavoidable in my household, because my kids tell me,” Cherundolo said of tracking league standings. “It’s always an ultracompetitive game against (Seattle). They had an important and emotional win coming from behind with a guy out last week, so they’re in a positive moment. I’m really looking forward to this matchup.”