It’s almost become a yearly ritual in Major League Soccer: Sporting Kansas City and the Seattle Sounders clash in must-win games near the top of the Western Conference.
The pair tangled in early September 2018 at Seattle’s CenturyLink Field (now Lumen Field), with Seattle winning 3-1 but Sporting finishing the regular season ahead of Seattle in the race for first place — by just three points — less than two months later.
In 2017, the teams split their season series 1-1, but a 1-0 Sounders victory late in the season helped them claim second in the West. Sporting KC finished fifth, but just four points separated KC from Seattle.
In 2016 … well, you get the point. These two sides seem perpetually entwined in a fierce dance among the elite of MLS. And we’re headed toward another heavy-metal tango Sunday night as Sporting KC hosts the Sounders at Children’s Mercy Park.
Sporting KC leads the West — but Seattle’s just one point back and holds a game in hand. And a mere month or so remains in the regular season.
Sunday’s showdown could fairly be called one of the most important regular-season games in KC’s recent history (at least until Sporting travels to Seattle on Oct. 23). It’s the type of game that soccer analysts often call a “six-pointer.”
It’s not just a win, but it takes valuable points away from your rival, too.
“At the end, we can only win three (points),” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said of that particular phrase. “But yeah, I understand the sentiment there.”
Since 2011, Seattle has had the most top-two finishes in the West — six — but just one of those top-two showings saw the Sounders in first (2014). In the same span, Sporting KC has managed five top-two finishes in its conference — second-most overall. KC spent 2005-14 in the East before moving back to the West in 2015. Four of those five top-two finishes saw Kansas City finish first.
As a result, both have been constants in the playoffs. Seattle hasn’t missed the postseason at all in the last decade, while Sporting KC has missed out just once, in 2019.
And since 2011, SKC and Seattle have tied for most combined MLS Cup and U.S. Open Cup trophies: four apiece.
“When you look at Seattle, they’re a very competitive team,” Vermes said. “All their guys compete really well. They always find a way to keep themselves in the game, they defend well, and they’re really good on the counter and have a lot of improvisation when they attack the goal. All those ingredients add up to being the mark of a good team.”
A large part of that success is Raul Ruidiaz. The 31-year-old forward has 58 goals in 91 games for the Sounders since 2018, including 14 this season.
“He’s that guy that kind of positions himself away from the defenders a little bit just so he has a couple of yards of space,” Sporting KC goalkeeper Tim Melia said.
The Peruvian has a knack for positioning himself just out of a defender’s line of sight before making a last-minute run and scoring — oftentimes before his defender even realizes what’s happened.
Ruidiaz’s style also fits how Seattle likes to play overall. Melia described the Sounders as a team that “invites” opponents to attack before mounting quick breaks with the likes of Ruidiaz and Cristian Roldan.
“He really thinks about where he should be on the field when the ball’s in certain areas,” Vermes said of Ruidiaz. “He’s constantly adapting and adjusting his position.”
While Sporting and Seattle duel for the top spot in the standings, Ruidiaz has a goal-scoring rival in Daniel Salloi. The KC winger’s 13 goals trail Ruidiaz’s total by one; both men are both chasing D.C. United’s Ola Kamara (16 goals) for the golden boot.
With star forward Alan Pulido still recovering from injury, Salloi is clearly KC’s top threat.
“Right now, Daniel is relentless in going at guys,” Vermes said. “So he’s going to find an opportunity. And now the question is, is he on that day, and does he finishe it? And he’s been on.”
Kickoff Sunday is 6 p.m. Sporting will also be hoping for dropped points from the Colorado Rapids, who sit just two points behind KC with a game in hand and host Toronto FC Saturday night.