SEATTLE — He is Seattle’s Mr. Reliable.
Nicolás Lodeiro is a rare breed, one of the few pure No. 10s in the game today, and the 30-year-old Uruguayan maestro has been the pillar on which Seattle has become the defining team of this MLS era, winning its second MLS Cup title in four years against Toronto FC in a 3-1 victory on Sunday.
In a game that was scoreless for 58 minutes, with Toronto often dominating possession, Lodeiro was the linchpin of the decisive play, Seattle’s second goal, which was scored by final MVP Víctor Rodríguez in the 75th minute. If you blinked, you might not have seen it, but Lodeiro’s assist was absolutely brilliant. Receiving the ball just outside the left corner of the penalty box, draped by two Toronto defenders, Lodeiro one-touched a layoff while falling down into a space that was perfect for Rodríguez to run onto it and fire a shot for the 2-0 lead.
“Every day we talk about this play: Give me the ball, I leave for you and you score,” Lodeiro said afterward. “And so it was perfect. I left it and he scored. I am very proud, very happy, because Víctor is a very good person. He fights every day with his life. He’s had a lot of injuries this year, and he deserves this. He deserves to be the MVP.”
To hear Lodeiro talk is to realize that while he may be a pure No. 10, he is not necessarily a stereotypical No. 10—which is to say, unwilling to scrap and claw for every little thing on the field. The word you hear Lodeiro say more than any other is fight. In every game, he shows that it is possible to be both Promethean and purposeful—traits that have forged the culture of this Seattle team.
“The biggest quality that Nico has on top of being a big-game player is that when he goes to train as our captain, you cannot hide,” said Seattle GM Garth Lagerwey, who brought Lodeiro to Seattle from Boca Juniors in 2016. “He works harder than everybody else. And you have no choice. You have to do what he’s doing, because he’s the best player and he’s working the hardest. And the impact of that on our culture is amazing.”
Things did not come easy for Lodeiro on Sunday. “We knew we’d have to fight today,” he said, deploying that word again, and so he did things that not every No. 10 would do. In my game notes, I wrote this during the 42nd minute, when scoring chances weren’t happening for Seattle during a disappointing first half: Man, Lodeiro gets stuck in deep on Auro, fights for ball, wins throw. That attitude was contagious. Seattle kept going, kept fighting. Eventually the opportunities came, and Lodeiro delivered.
There’s an old quote that 80 percent of success in life is showing up. Lagerwey sounds like he’s channeling that saying when you ask him about his signing strategy.
“If you sign Designated Players, you want them to play,” he said. “It sounds like really simple stuff. I try to build teams with good players down the middle of the team, and I try to get them at good ages so they’re resilient, but literally it comes down to: Can your good players play? And if they play 30 games, you’re probably going to be a lot smarter than if they play 20 games.”
That is why Lodeiro is Seattle’s Mr. Reliable.
If we’re being honest, nobody out there is going to call Román Torres Seattle’s Mr. Reliable, at least not at this stage in his career. The 33-year-old Panamanian center back, whose international claim to fame after scoring the goal that sent his country to its first World Cup may be having been the heaviest player at that 2018 tournament, hurt his team by violating the league’s PED policy and serving a 10-game suspension late in the regular season.
It was only the latest setback for a Seattle central defense that lost its anchor, Chad Marshall, when he was forced to retire unexpectedly due to knee injuries a quarter of the way through the season. But Torres, who had forfeited 20 percent of his salary during his suspension and was forbidden from training with the team, continued spending time with Lodeiro and doing what he needed to be ready to play when he finally returned. Torres, who also shaved his trademark dreadlocks, scored the game-winning goal on Decision Day that sealed Seattle's No. 2 seed in the Western Conference playoff bracket.
And on Sunday, Torres was a rock in the central defense with partner Kim Kee-Hee, snuffing out Toronto’s attacking threats even though TFC dominated in possession for the game. Toronto spent plenty of time on the ball in the attacking half, but it rarely produced significant chances on goal, and that had a lot to do with Torres and Kim. Torres, on his own, produced 15 of Seattle's 39 clearances.
Given all the uncertainty on his back line this season, Seattle coach Brian Schmetzer was especially thankful for its performance in the most important game of the season.
“We put out Román and Kim and also Chad for a quarter of the year, and Xavier [Arreaga, signed in May] had a spell back there as well, and I’m blessed to have some talented center backs,” Schmetzer said after Sunday’s game. “Today when [Toronto’s Alejandro] Pozuelo was on, obviously we wanted to shuttle the ball out wide. We know the aerial crosses we would have been able to deal with. But certainly over the course of the entire year that’s been a strong point for us in the makeup of our franchise.”
In the Seattle locker room after the game, Torres, who was limited to 51 minutes in the earlier playoff rounds due to a hamstring injury suffered vs. Real Salt Lake, was hilariously giving interviews while wearing Champagne-covered ski goggles, a Panama hat and a Panamanian flag over his shoulders.
“The truth is I’m very happy for everything the team has done for me personally, even during my suspension,” Torres said. “This team is very united. It’s a family, and I had their support, and today is a show of what we were capable of. Thanks to that, we are champions now.”
In the end, it took everyone for Seattle to win its second MLS title. Lodeiro may be Mr. Reliable and Torres may, well, not be as much, but they were both essential players down the middle for these Sounders, and they were present when it mattered.
Eighty percent of success in life is showing up.