For another perspective on the upcoming first round playoff match against Seattle on Tuesday, Nov. 24 at 7:30 p.m. PT, (ESPN/ESPN Deportes/710 AM/980 AM) we spoke with the Sounders’ beat reporter for The Seattle Times, Jayda Evans, for her take on the upcoming matchup as well as some further insight into Seattle’s 2020 MLS Regular Season. This is Jayda’s second season covering the Sounders for the Times, where she has covered a multitude of sports since 1999, including the Seattle Seahawks and Seattle Storm. Follow Jayda on Twitter @JaydaEvans and on her Seattle Times’ author page here.
Coming off an impressive 2019 MLS Cup Championship run that saw the Sounders persevere through injuries and international call-ups before winning the championship, this year was obviously unprecedented. How would you grade the team in 2020 thus far?
From my perspective, it is difficult to grade because of the fact that teams have had to go through the pandemic and then the civil unrest - that really resonated with the Sounders. A lot of the Sounders players were getting more involved [in social issues] and definitely pushing the vote. Then they had to deal a little bit with playing in the wildfires, they didn’t have anything cancelled, but that was still around to deal with and there is some Californians on the roster, so that impacted some of the key players.
So, also branching out and looking at the League as a whole, I just can't give too much of a negative score to any team because of that. It's just been so much to go through, just even from my perspective. Then any team that goes down to the bubble and succeeds or even if they don’t succeed in that - just being confined like that and being able to function is impressive. Even up here [in Seattle] the players are instructed not to do what they normally would do as far as free time, so making that conscious effort to not be around friends or have family come in like you normally would and really focus on just being focused on training and be with your team and then also focused on keeping yourself out of distance from even contracting the virus.
All of that, and the Sounders were still able to compete at a high level, make it to the playoffs, finish second in the Western Conference. I mean, I have to give that an A or B, somewhere up there. As I would probably do with a lot of the other teams just because I find it super impressive to keep that kind of focus. Maybe it’s a release for them, maybe it's the easiest part of their day, that's where I would be I think. I would definitely give them high marks. I would also give them high marks because they are super talented, and they do look really good this season.
In addition to that, there are things that you could critique. The one thing that I would say is other teams have been able to get some momentum going against them. That would be the one thing that the Sounders haven't really been able to find. They’ve even mentioned that in different interviews, they are super talented, they seem like they have all of the pieces there, but they haven't found a complete game. So, if I'm going to say anything negative about their season, it would be that lack of a complete game - they haven't had that in a while. Usually at this point you know even as a casual fan of watching them and definitely last season they were pulling out complete games at this moment.
Seattle has a three-headed monster in top performers Jordan Morris, Raúl Ruidíaz, and Nicolás Lodeiro (all recently announced to the 2020 MLS Best XI, the most-ever in one season for the club). Who in your opinion has shown the most throughout the year and how does LAFC need to handle them in the upcoming matchup?
Can LAFC keep their head on a swivel? Because that’s definitely going to be necessary. Nico Lodeiro is going to be everywhere. He’s the heart of the team, the anchor, and he’s going to will something to happen. So, if you could most focus on trying to hang with him or clog up some of the lanes for him, maybe that would work. But at the same time, Ruidíaz, if you're not focused on him or if he’s not involved, or doesn't get too many touches early and you think ‘Oh this is the off game or something for him’ - he will find a way to score too. Then Jordan, his pace is really good, and I think LAFC sometimes leaves some open spaces and allows their opponents to play behind the line and leave gaps. Jordan thrives in that space. He has yet to really see anybody be able to chase him down or really contain him even when he has the ball. I mean, he seems like he's almost better when he's dribbling down with a defender tailing him.
So, you have to keep your head on a swivel with those three. I think most important is Nico, because of the fact that he is a playmaker, and he will try and make something happen immediately in the game. That's one of the things that they would prefer to do. To jump on you early and then get into more of a defensive mindset, but they would rather just come out in the first half and score a bunch of goals early and then play the rest of the way however it unfolds.
In an interesting role reversal, the script from last year’s Western Conference Championship matchup is flipped – Now LAFC are the underdogs playing on the road. How do you think this will affect the match?
It is interesting, but I think that those are all outside kind of storylines. Those are fun things for me and whoever else is writing about it to talk about. Because of the fact that you’ve got [Carlos] Vela back, it's ridiculous to call it an underdog role when you have a player like that coming back to full strength. It’s the playoffs where a player like Vela would turn it on and have that star power showing. Then, the fact that last year happened [LAFC’s defeat to Seattle in the Western Conference Championship], l think that ratchets up the desire to want to perform well and get a good result too.
I think that just makes LAFC the power that they were last season, the force. It is intimidating in a sense for Seattle, when you have that kind of player [like Vela] and then the way that things ended last year, when you know you have that coming to your stadium.
Then on the flip side, the Sounders core is still there. Even the players like Brad Smith and Roman Torres, they didn't have them for the majority of this season, but they are back - and they played parts in last season's upset in the playoffs. So, there is a role reversal and from LAFC’s standpoint, they are definitely looking at that team that beat them in their house, just destroyed all of what they had last season. If I’m Vela I’m completely embarrassed still. So, I don’t see them as underdogs, I see them as a power coming back and definitely wanting to shred the Sounders the way they got shredded last year.
Do you think the game will be affected as a result of playing in Seattle on turf? How have you seen other teams make adjustments to playing in Seattle?
Well, I don't know about it affecting the game a lot, because it's not like LAFC hasn’t played here already. So, if it were a situation where some of those players hadn’t played here already, then I could say that yes, the ball is going to move a lot quicker. With that being said, although LAFC has had experience, it is the Sounders home field, so they get the edge in that sense. It is going to move faster, and there is a chance of rain, so that’s going to make a difference too, because that’s really going to make things slick out there. That makes all the difference and that could affect LAFC and some of the players who aren't as familiar with it. It is definitely going to play into the favor of the Sounders, because that is their type of game. They would prefer that it be rainy. Brian Schmetzer and other Seattle natives, call it ‘Seattle sunshine.’ They would rather it be a little blustery, rainy, a nighttime show time on ESPN. Just like Russell Wilson says, that's the time to turn it on, the playoffs. That is the type of environment Seattle will definitely have an edge in.
LAFC’s depth has been tested throughout the year as a result of injuries, international duty, COVID-19 and more, and this challenge has carried through into the playoffs with the Club announcing it will be without MLS Golden Boot Winner Diego Rossi and major contributors in left back Diego Palacios, midfielder Jose Cifuentes and forward Brian Rodriguez, who all contracted COVID-19 while out on international duty. It appears that the Sounders will be without Xavi Arreaga, but will have Raúl Ruidíaz and Gustav Svensson available. How do you see these absences affecting the matchup?
The Sounders haven’t really played the exact same LAFC lineup yet in any of the four games this season. Who is in goal for LAFC will definitely make a difference. Moreover, because of the original quarantine rule the Sounders weren't going to prepare to play the internationals anyway. So, they were already not preparing for that. At the same time, they haven't faced these exact [LAFC] pieces, where they're going to be so that can make training just a little bit tricky.
In talking to some of the players and Brian Schmetzer, it seems that they spent most of the time focusing on themselves and kind of fine tuning some of the things that they needed to do. Having Gustav and Raul, both of those will be important. Gustav is an unsung hero on the defensive end, and Raul is on the attack. Having those two there has really allowed the Sounders to fine tune themselves and prepare to face anything. From what Brian has said, Bob [Bradley] plays the same type of game no matter who is available - that's from Brian's interpretation. So therefore, them being familiar with each other as coaches it kind of doesn't make that much of a difference of who is on the field for LAFC. Especially since you know that you're going to have Vela, and they can prepare to defend against him. I think the situation is a benefit for the Sounders because they get two key pieces and they can kind of focus on themselves and the way that they know LAFC plays and go from there.
This upcoming match will be the fifth meeting across all competitions that these two squads have played this year. Understanding that previous matches have had injuries and absences on both ends, what have you seen that has jumped out at you in these prior games?
The fire there is so much fun. I really don't think they like each other on the field. I got the strong impression last season, and I still get even a thread this season that the Sounders have legitimately proven themselves to be a power in MLS. It is wild to not feel the respect that a team deserves when they win two of the last four championships. They have been there in the Finals in three of the last four seasons and have twelve consecutive playoff appearances. Then now you’ve got these three Best XI players [Lodiero, Ruidíaz, Morris].
As a competitor, and coming from other sports I’ve covered, you would never have this kind of new team like LAFC that hasn’t done anything come in and just be the darling of the League. I understand that there are some great players on that team and it's L.A., but please. And you know, Washington and California have a rivalry issue with each other anyhow, so all of that seems to be at play. I think that is the theme.
You know there is a distaste, a disdain, a ‘yuck’ about Portland for Sounders fans, but LAFC is right there. It’s the disrespect, it's kind of like how dare you? You know? You haven’t really done anything to come in like that. To have this kind of air about you, and I feel that. One of the best games was when the Sounders hosted [LAFC] the first time after the MLS Is Back tournament in Seattle. It was an awesome game, but it was the first time also playing at CenturyLink [now Lumen Field] and [Seattle] were on fire. That is something that nothing, even COVID couldn’t quell -- that fire that is there when these two teams link up. Which is a ton of fun.
There’s not going to be fans in the stands so you're not going to have 40,000 people bringing the fire, but it doesn't seem to matter because it's just such a flame that you can feel it even up in the press box. That is fun to watch between the two sides. I get the impression that when the two sides meet on the field that they do not like each other, like the new person wanting to challenge the established veteran. It goes back and forth, back and forth. This could be that match where LAFC wins it and then they go on and they get that Cup which they need to validate all of this hype. That's what usually has to happen, that is what has to happen to be the best - win a championship to justify and qualify all that comes with it. Whereas Seattle has done it.
So here is the big question - LAFC will win if?
I think that LAFC will win if they are able to contain Jordan, Nico and Raul. It’s that simple.
And in your opinion, Seattle can win if?
They have to play both sides of the ball. They can win if they’re able to put together not only a complete game in the sense of the first half and the second half at a high caliber, but they also have to play well on both sides of the ball. The defense with Yeimar [Gómez Andrade], who is a really good talent, him and Stefan [Frei], the backline are going to have to have just as good of a game as the front line. LAFC is dangerous offensively, so the Sounders probably could seek to outscore them, but you don’t want to go that route. You want to play both sides of the ball to a high caliber for two halves.