In late July, the Seattle Sounders’ MLS playoff hopes had all but vanished.
The Sounders had hit the proverbial wall: They sat in ninth place in the Western Conference, well back of Vancouver for the final postseason berth. They were coming off a 3-0 loss to Sporting Kansas City in which they didn’t take their first shot on goal until the final minutes of the match. And they had fired longtime coach Sigi Schmid.
What could possibly turn their faint fortunes around?
It came in the speedy delivery of Uruguay international star Nicolas Lodeiro.
Since the Sounders signed Lodeiro to a multiyear contact as their designated player July 27, coming in a $6 million transfer from Argentine powerhouse Boca Juniors, the attacking midfielder has been nothing short of sensational.
In 13 MLS matches to close out the regular season, the 27-year-old scored four goals, and tallied eight assists. Between August and September, he had an eight-game stretch where he recorded at least one goal or one assist.
Until a late-season lull, Lodeiro had been on pace to record one of the best assists-per-90-minutes ratios in MLS history at 0.89. He finished the regular season at 0.62, good for fourth in the league.
Oh, and the important statistic: Seattle’s record was 7-2-4 in Lodeiro’s 13 starts.
“(His signing) produced goals, assists and wins,” Sounders defender Brad Evans said. “That is how you judge a new player who has come in.”
After Seattle sold Obafemi Martins’ contract to Shanghai Greenland Shenhua FC of the Chinese Super League last February, a DP spot opened up on the roster.
Shortly thereafter, the Sounders added the Uruguayan midfielder to their discovery list and rumors of a potential Lodeiro transfer surfaced, even as he was completing his first full season with Boca Juniors.
Along with players such as Luis Suarez and Diego Godin, Lodeiro is one of the mainstays of the Uruguay national team (he also is good friends with Suarez, who is now with FC Barcelona). Lodeiro has made 50 appearances for Uruguay and played in two World Cups. He was part of the Uruguayan side that captured the 2011 Copa America title.
But as the first part of the MLS season started, all they remained were rumors.
“We all knew he was coming probably a month in advance,” Evans said. “So, of course, we looked on YouTube at a lot of videos, and you could obviously tell the player coming was of extremely high quality, and that he was coming from a team, and a culture and a country that works.”
There have been reports that Lodeiro was looking to leave South America for better safety in the United States. When asked why he jumped to the MLS when he did, signing a reported $6.1 million contract through 2019, he declared it was soccer-related.
“The truth is this league is on the rise,” Lodeiro said through a translator. “There are many good players coming into this league. Bottom line, you want to be in a league that is competitive — and Major League Soccer is competitive.”
Of course, when Lodeiro arrived, plan A for interim Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer was to see how his new midfielder’s attacking style meshed with standout forwards Clint Dempsey and Jordan Morris.
Dempsey and Lodeiro hit it off great: In their first four starts together in the lineup, Dempsey tallied five goals, and Lodeiro had four assists.
But in late August, Dempsey was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat, and ruled out for the remainder of the 2016 season. That left Morris as Lodeiro’s primary running mate.
“We got to step two,” Schmetzer said. “Nico is a very smart guy. He sees a lot of the passes on the field that maybe some other guys don’t. That just exemplifies Jordan’s movement off the ball. He is so fast and finds those little seams.”
Evans said Lodeiro was the “perfect piece of the puzzle” to give the Sounder a much-needed lift.
“We hope he can lift us well in the playoffs,” Evans said.
NO. 4 SEATTLE SOUNDERS (14-14-6) VS. NO. 5 SPORTING KANSAS CITY (13-13-8)
7 p.m., Thursday, CenturyLink Field
TV: FS1. Radio: 97.3-FM, 1360-AM.
Head to head: The teams have never met in the playoffs. They played twice this season with Sporting Kansas City winning both. Sporting prevailed, 1-0, in the season opener on March 6 in Seattle and then beat the Sounders 3-0 on July 24 in Kansas City that was the last game coached by Sigi Schmid. Seattle leads the all-time series, 7-4-3.
Notes: It’s fitting for this matchup between the No. 4 and No. 5 teams in the Western Conference that the teams’ season stats are evenly matched. Consider: Seattle leads in goals scored (44-42) and shots on target (153-146) while Kansas City has the edge in goals allowed (41-43) and in corners taken (198-190). … Sporting struggled with consistency this season, and, like the Sounders, qualified for the playoffs with a 2-0 win over San Jose in the season finale. They play a physical style, similar to what Seattle saw in Sunday’s 2-1 win over Real Salt Lake, and have world-class players in Benny Feilhaber, Graham Zusi and Matt Besler. They have not given up a goal in their past two games. Feilhaber (seven goals, 13 assists) makes the offense go, and the team is led in scoring by Dom Dwyer (16 goals; fourth-best in MLS). Although Sporting has lost in the knockout round in each of the past two seasons, they have a playoff pedigree. They’ve made the playoffs in six consecutive years and won the MLS Cup in 2013 and the U.S. Open Cup in 2012. ... The Sounders, entering the playoffs for the eighth-consecutive year, are a much different team than the one that last played Sporting. There’s a new coach, Brian Schmetzer, who has led the Sounders to an 8-2-4 mark since taking over for Schmid. And there’s new designated player Nicolas Lodeiro, who’s jump-started an offense that has been without Clint Dempsey (irregular heartbeat). ... Injury report: Besides Dempsey, the Sounders are without Andreas Ivanschitz (knee) and Dylan Remick (concussion). Sporting is missing Diego Rubio (knee).
Darrin Beene, staff writer