Sounders continue to be cautious with Raúl Ruidíaz’s return

TUKWILA — Whenever Raúl Ruidíaz has been healthy, he’s been reasonably productive. The Peruvian striker has five goals in less than 800 MLS minutes this year, roughly on par with his scoring rate joining since the Sounders midway through 2018. The problem? He’s been sidelined three times this year with muscle injuries, limiting him to about a third of the available minutes in MLS play.

In an effort to make sure he’s available for the rest of the season, the Sounders have put Ruidíaz on a strict program designed to slowly ramp him back up. Although Ruidíaz doesn’t seem to necessarily like the limits — he appeared to be quite upset when he was pulled after 65 minutes with the Sounders still needing a goal against Real Salt Lake on Sunday — it does seem to be working. Ruidíaz has now played four consecutive matches and is getting close to having his limitations removed.

Ruidíaz’s ability to stay healthy and be productive could be what ultimately determines how the rest of the Sounders’ season plays out. The Sounders are 7-4-2 across all competitions when Ruidíaz starts and 5-9-3 when he doesn’t start this year.

“We need Raúl,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer told the media on Thursday before the team departed for a massive road match against the LA Galaxy. “We need him to finish out the rest of the year healthy. We’ll see how the LA game goes as far as his minutes. We need him on the field, but I’m not going to risk him for re-injury. It’s a really interesting dilemma we have because he wants to play and he wants to help the team. I want him to play.”

Ruidíaz will likely start on Friday against the Galaxy — against whom he has eight goals in eight games — but might not go the full 90 minutes.

“It depends on the physical outputs,” Schmetzer said. “We’ll see. Those are in-game decisions based on what we see, feel, how the game is going. I’d love to be up and take him off a little bit.”

As important as Ruidíaz is, the Sounders realize that they can’t afford to put too much weight on his shoulders alone. The Sounders have been limited to just one goal in each of their past four matches, have scored multiple goals just once in their past eight and rank 20th in scoring for the season. The Sounders have done a slightly better job in creating goal-scoring chances — they rank 15th in that category, according to American Soccer Analysis — but they’re underperforming that number by more than any team other than Nashville SC.

“We’re trying to get people in the right positions, but it’s also a mindset,” Schmetzer said. “I need them to just be angry, mad, ‘I’m going to score that goal.’ It’s that hunger that they all have deep within themselves. I need that to come out.”

One common symptom of these struggles has been the Sounders’ propensity to become overly reliant on crosses. After lumping in 32 crosses against RSL, the Sounders have now crossed the ball more than any team other than the New England Revolution. Although the Sounders lead MLS in getting those crosses to the six-yard box, they rank 23rd in cross-completion percentage.

“That’s not even close to our design,” Schmetzer said.

Rather, the reason for all those crosses is that the Sounders have so often found themselves playing from behind. They’ve now given up the first goal in 6 of 8 games.

“That causes the opponents drop in, put men behind the ball,” Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan said. “It’s always tough to score against that. Then we end up crossing the ball and we don’t get numbers into the box like we should . That has been a problem for us, always trying to come back from 1-0 against a low block. The first thing to be good at is to defend and to be good in our defensive responsibilities. That will make the field a bit bigger .”

João Paulo has had an increasing presence during Sounders training. While that’s been welcome, Schmetzer confirmed that the Brazilian will not return this year and is entirely focused on getting ready for the 2023 preseason.

The injury news on Obed Vargas wasn’t much better. Two months after he was first sidelined with a stress fracture in his lower back, Vargas still hasn’t even started jogging and it’s looking increasingly likely that he won’t return this season.

“I’m not going to completely write him off, but there’s another longterm decision that’s much, much, much greater than the short term,” Schmetzer said. “We’re not going to rush him back.”

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