FRISCO, Texas – FC Dallas heads to the Pacific Northwest to take on the Seattle Sounders in Round 1 of the MLS Cup Playoffs. The Sounders finished second in the West under longtime coach Brian Schmetzer with a 14-9-11 record. That, of course, is not the full story. To get the full story, we spoke to Sounders beat writer Ari Liljenwall, who kindly shared his insight on Seattle’s 2023 season ahead of FCD’s trip to Lumen Field on Monday, Oct. 30.
Regular Season Adversity
Although Seattle finished near the top of the West as usual, this wasn’t a vintage Sounders season. Much like FC Dallas, Seattle saw some of its key players miss significant chunks of the season due to injury concerns. Peruvian ace Raúl Rudíaz managed only 11 starts and five goals while USMNT midfielder Cristian Roldan was unavailable for long stretches due to concussion. Their absence, in Liljenwall’s view, contributed greatly to Seattle’s relative lack of goals (41) this year. However, both players returned towards the end of the regular season and will likely line up against FCD on Wednesday.
Liljenwall: "In a lot of ways, Seattle ended up finishing second but it really didn't feel like they were near the top of the table. Probably the biggest adversity they had to deal with was that Cristian Roldan barely played all year. It really underscored how important he is to the team, especially on offense. He’d been playing at right mid and was the engine that makes the whole thing go and they never really figured out how to generate consistent offense without him on the field.
“They also had Raúl Rudíaz miss extended time this year. Everyone knows he's one of the most lethal number 9s in the league when he's healthy and in form but they haven't been able to get him healthy or in form this year. Between those two players, you have one of your main sources of creativity and then one of your main sources of goalscoring not on the field. As tough of a season as it's been, there is a feeling that the group is coming together at the right time and they're set up pretty well to make a run despite the challenges that they've had.”
While the influence of Seattle’s stars waned due to injury or lack of form, the club’s Homegrown players picked up the slack. Teenagers Josh Atencio, Reed Baker-Whiting and Obed Vargas were mainstays during the regular season, each playing 19 or more games. Although Dallas is known for its Homegrown contributors, Seattle may have the edge on that front this time around. One thing to note, Baker-Whiting has a hamstring injury and may not be able to play during the best-of-3 series.
Liljenwall: “There's been a few young players who have stepped, which is cool to see. Josh Atencio and Obed Vargas are two Homegrown center mids they ended up having to play a lot, because Albert Rusnák moved further up the field. Vargas and Atencio have split minutes with João Paulo in defensive midfield and they both played really well. Atencio, in particular, has really earned minutes and looked really good in recent weeks. And then there’s Reed Baker Whiting coming along who they've been playing at both fullback spots at different points in the year. He's a big-time prospect and you’ve been able to see that upside during this last stretch of the season. But he's hurt now, which is really unfortunate.”
Paulo Back to his Best
There was an anomaly during last year’s postseason: Seattle wasn’t there. The Sounders missed the playoffs in 2022, the only time that’s ever happened since they joined MLS in 2009. A big part of that, according to Liljenwall, was the absence of star defensive midfielder João Paulo, who suffered an ACL injury early in the year. All that’s behind him now, though, and the Brazilian is back to his brilliant best. The battle of influence between Seattle’s Paulo and FCD’s own star defensive mid Asier Illarramendi will be one of the keys to this matchup.
Liljenwall: “Paulo is so important to how they play. He's really like a do-everything player. He provides so much leadership on and off the field. There were some questions as to how long it was going to take for him to get back to his peak form. But to my eye, he's looked every bit as good as he's ever been. He's sort of been the steadying force amid some of the turbulent times that they've had this year.”
2023 Playoff Tickets On Sale Now!
WE’RE IN! FC Dallas has CLINCHED a spot in the Audi 2023 Cup Playoffs. Match two is scheduled for Saturday, November 4 at 8PM CT from Toyota Stadium! Tickets are on sale NOW!