TUKWILA — The work started in the driving rain. On a drenched field at Starfire Sports in Tukwila was Jordan Morris in a familiar spot on the left flank.
What surrounded the Sounders FC winger was new. New teammates in Fredy Montero, Nico Benezet, Leo Chu and Kelyn Rowe. New assistant coach in Freddy Juarez. New formation in playing with three center backs.
But it couldn’t matter. The newness, Seattle’s six-match winless streak to end the season, the fact that Morris had only played two MLS games this year due to a torn ACL — all of it had to wash away in the rain the week of Nov. 7 and chemistry had to be infused.
Whether the Sounders found the right formula will be known Tuesday. Seeded second in MLS’s Western Conference bracket, the Sounders will host seventh-seeded Real Salt Lake at 7:30 p.m. at Lumen Field in a playoff opener.
Morris, striker Raul Ruidiaz and co-captain Nico Lodeiro are expected to play big roles in the match despite the 2020 Best XI stars not having played together this season. Morris and Lodeiro (knee) barely played at all.
“The chemistry is here,” midfielder Joao Paulo insisted, as translated from Portuguese, after a week of the club shifting from regular season to postseason mentality. Seattle is making a league-record 13th playoff appearance.
“It is a matter of adapting to the new system,” Joao Paulo continued. “(Morris’) position is different than the position he was used to playing, but that’s why we practiced. Admittedly, we didn’t have much time to practice in this postseason, but the quality is there. We know the factors that he can add to the team, and we are certainly arriving stronger than if we were without him.”
Adding Morris and Lodeiro to the postseason roster after the pair missed the bulk of the season seems unfair to RSL. Even the postseason schedule provided an advantage because the international window for World Cup qualifying matches pushed the start back about two weeks, adding more training time for Seattle.
Morris, who suffered his injury in February, totaled 75 minutes off the bench in the past two Sounders matches. Lodeiro, who underwent two arthroscopic knee surgeries, dotted nine appearances with four starts for a total of 459 minutes across the season.
Their injuries didn’t swipe their talent as they returned to training but getting game-fit in soccer is difficult. Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer utilized USL Championship side Tacoma Defiance players for two 60-minute scrimmages — Schmetzer serving as referee — to help build stamina.
“We have seen it build,” Rowe said of the chemistry. “And we’ve seen it from the start. When they all come back, it’s a little bit slow, but they’re trying to get the run outs, they’re trying to get their fitness back. With these kinds of players and the quality that they have, they’re able to quickly get back to that game awareness. It’s not that big of a deal.”
Competition to be part of the postseason game-day roster also helped the team find a groove with each other. Morris has been part of partial training and drills since August, so players that were signed this year like Montero, Rowe, Chu and Benezet have been able to develop an off-field relationship with Morris.
Seattle, however, was without first-choice starters in Cristian Roldan (U.S.), Alex Roldan (El Salvador), Xavier Arreaga (Ecuador) and Yeimar Gomez Andrade (Colombia) due to international call-ups. And that’s where teammates were key during training.
“You have to be focused, you have to be sharp and then you make the teammate next to you try to beat you,” Montero said of how the chemistry is formed. “If you’re scoring the goals in training, if you’re giving 100% running and defending, you’re going to motivate the teammate next to you to do the same or more. The result is that the team is going to be in the best condition ever for this first game.”
RSL and Seattle split their regular-season series. While RSL will have a similar look, the Sounders will be starkly different from the previous two.
During the 2-1 win at Lumen Field in June, the Rave Green had Stefan Cleveland in goal, and a left side featuring Jimmy Medranda and Will Bruin. Schmetzer had teenagers Josh Atencio and Danny Leyva anchor the midfield and Nouhou in the backfield for the rematch at Rio Tinto Stadium in September, which was a 1-0 loss.
None of those players is expected to be featured Tuesday. Bruin (knee), Nouhou (health and safety protocol) and Medranda (hamstring) are out.
While the Sounders might be unpredictable because of the drastic lineup changes, the club isn’t entering the match on a high like RSL. The visitors were 3-3-0 to close the season, scoring 10 goals with two road wins.
The biggest was a 1-0 road win against Sporting Kansas City on Nov. 7 at Children’s Mercy Park. RSL veteran midfielder Damir Kreilach scored the game-winner in the last minute of second-half stoppage time. It was the Croatian’s 16th goal of the season to pair with nine assists, also scoring the game-winner against the Sounders in September.
Ruidiaz, who was limited to 26 matches this season due to international call-ups and a hamstring injury, led the Sounders with 17 goals.
“They have guys that score goals in moments where you think you’re under control,” Cristian said. “Kreilach scored out of nothing. Really, their ability to score goals is what makes them dangerous, and they’re a team that hangs on. They press pretty well and have guys that fight until the end. It’s going to be a difficult game.”
Difficulty that could be countered with Morris, Lodeiro and Ruidiaz.
“Some of the in-game decisions will be tactical and some of them will be medical,” Schmetzer said. “How we kind of shuffle the group around to make sure everybody plays effectively without risking injury. That’s the challenge.
“I don’t care what we have to do, we have to win this game.”