Sounders FC has been here before – it just takes a good memory or stat book to remember.
The club sits alone atop Major League Soccer’s Western Conference standings for the first time since August 2017. The Sounders (8-3-3) have 27 points heading into Wednesday’s match against Real Salt Lake at CenturyLink Field.
The mark is also only four points behind the Columbus Crew SC (31 points) for MLS’s Supporters’ Shield lead. That award goes to the top overall team.
Naturally, the proximity to both regular-season honors begs the question of whether they’re goals for the Sounders. The club was neither when it went on to win MLS Cup titles in 2016 and 2019.
“It’s a long season,” Sounders co-captain Nico Lodeiro said during a recent video conference call with media. “There are many good teams, very competitive teams. But the point is that we’re always working hard. When we wear the Sounders jersey, we play every match as if it’s a final. There’s still a lot to be played and it’s a competitive league, but yes, we’re serious about that (playing for the Supporters’ Shield).”
Seattle will make the push without three first-choice starters in forward Raul Ruidiaz (Peru), midfielder Gustav Svensson (Sweden) and center back Xavier Arreaga (Ecuador), due to national-team call-ups. Ruidiaz recorded his ninth goal of the season in a 3-1 win against Vancouver last week, which ties Crew forward Gyasi Zardes for second place in the Golden Boot race. Los Angeles FC forward Diego Rossi leads with 12.
But even the absences should feel familiar to the Sounders.
Last season the club had 11 call-ups at one point. Despite the shuffling, the Sounders finished the season second in the Western Conference standings.
Schedule-wise, this season will be more difficult without the preferred starters. There’s only an average of three days between the Sounders’ upcoming six matches. Seattle plays seven matches overall in the month of October.
“We obviously don’t want to use that as an excuse, but it certainly hurts when we have guys that are good players go to international break and have to basically be away from the team for 25 days,” Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan said during a recent video conference call with media. “I don’t think I’ve ever been a part of something like this, besides maybe Gold Cup (last year).”
The Sounders made two significant signings in left back Brad Smith and center back Roman Torres that will help with depth. Forward Will Bruin is also fully recovered from a serious knee injury and playing better than his 2018 form. He’ll likely start in place of Ruidiaz.
Torres completed his mandatory, 10-day quarantine and will be available for selection Wednesday. He’s likely to make an appearance as a substitute, while Smith could be considered to start.
“It was a joyous reunion; everybody was really happy,” said Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer of Torres’ first training with the club Tuesday.
The left-back slot is crowded with Smith joining Nouhou and Joevin Jones as options to start. Jones, however, will miss his third straight game due to a sprained ankle.
Nouhou had his best showing during the MLS is Back tournament in Florida in July. He recorded an assist in the Sounders’ road win against the Los Angeles Galaxy in September.
“(Nouhou’s) matured a lot,” Schmetzer said during a recent video conference call with media. “He gets it this year. There wasn’t as many challenging conversations as there might have been last year trying to get the kid to understand where his place in the team was. He’s a very talented player. He knows what he can bring to the team. That little bit of confidence from Nouhou makes whatever decision I make or conversation I have with him regarding Brad or Joevin easier just because of Nouhou’s own confidence.”
The Sounders finished in a 2-2 draw in their last meeting with RSL (4-5-6), after conceding a late tying goal.
RSL lost to LAFC on Sunday, which could mean multiple first-choice players being rested Wednesday. RSL midfielder Albert Rusnak, who’s scored three goals this season, has also been called up by his Slovakian national team.
If the Sounders want to continue their pursuit of the Supporters’ Shield, however, an outright win is all that matters.
“The talk about Supporters’ Shield, it’s still a little premature,” Schmetzer said. “When the season kind of nears the end, then OK, of course you’re always looking at the standings and say there’s a chance. Our initial thought process is just to win individual games.”