TUKWILA, Wash. – The chase is on again.
The weave, the sprint, the dive to capture that magic of 2016.
That year is one of the most memorable for Sounders midfielder Nico Lodeiro, who, that July, walked down a green-lit stairwell at the club’s Pioneer Square headquarters as a franchise-altering signee from Argentine club Boca Juniors. By December, he was ignoring the chill of the Canadian air as he screamed in celebration with new teammates as MLS Cup winners, defeating Toronto FC by shootout.
Lodeiro came to Seattle to win championships. But the path to his second MLS Cup is stretching longer than planned.
“It’s difficult,” Lodeiro said recently at the Sounders’ Starfire Sports training facility. “Every year in this league is more difficult because of new players, new franchises, new coaches. The level is high.”
Adding to the challenge this season is the league’s change to a single-elimination playoff bracket. The second-seeded Sounders begin their trek Saturday against seventh-seeded FC Dallas at CenturyLink Field.
As team captain, Lodeiro is conjuring every bit of himself in hopes this is the year of a Sounders championship run.
“This time, I can give to my teammates more experience for the game,” he said. “Now in the playoffs, everybody is watching, and we want to show our big star is our team.”
If the Sounders are a star, Lodeiro is its core, by position and personality. Chris Henderson, the club’s vice president of soccer and sporting director, first spotted Lodeiro in Argentina because of his playmaking abilities and durability.
By the time he was in the prime of his career at 27, Lodeiro, now 30, had compiled a list of accomplishments for the powerhouse Boca Juniors and for his Uruguayan national team that made him worthy of an MLS designated-player contract topped only among Sounders by Clint Dempsey. Lodeiro joined the Sounders as a 2012 Olympian, 2011 Copa America champion and 2010 World Cup semifinalist.
As a Sounder, Lodeiro has been masterful. Appearing in his 100th match in September, coincidentally against Dallas, he leads the Sounders in career assists at 48 while scoring 26 goals since signing during the secondary transfer window in 2016.
Lodeiro has recorded at least 10 assists in the Sounders’ last three seasons – he’s the eighth MLS player to do so – which has helped the Sounders reach two league playoff finals and finish second in the Western Conference three times.
The Sounders extended his contract through the 2021 season, paying him approximately $2.5 million this year, according to figures released by the MLS Players Association.
“He makes us better,” Sounders defender Kelvin Leerdam said. “Since he’s been here, he’s played almost every game and everything is centered around him.”
The Sounders have the benefit of multiple vocal leaders. Goalkeeper Stefan Frei can be spotted giving pregame pep talks on the field. Midfielders Gustav Svensson and Cristian Roldan help unite the locker room while Lodeiro is an example of how to be a pro – even when sneaking a doughnut, his guilty pleasure alongside steak.
“I love sweets,” Lodeiro said. “One (doughnut), if we win, for celebration. (Otherwise,) I don’t eat it so much.”
That discipline is what Lodeiro has spread this season. He’ll remain after training to do more tactical work, if needed, and will critique himself to improve. Little, including injuries, gets in the way of performing at his highest level.
Lodeiro suffered a lower-back injury in the 27th minute of the scoreless draw against Dallas in September. A foul was called on Dallas midfielder Michael Barrios for the hard tackle, but Lodeiro remained in the match.
He missed the following two games, returning two weeks early to start in the regular-season finale against Minnesota United. Lodeiro was outfitted with a flak jacket and played 88 minutes.
“I knew it was broken or something hurt, but when I play, in my mind, I can’t (leave),” Lodeiro said. “I want to finish the game. I feel good when I help my team. … This is my passion, so I give my 100% every day and I’m always thinking the next day, I want to do better.”
Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said that dedication is partly why he and his staff named Lodeiro a captain this season. Frei holds the role of vice captain.
Lodeiro’s leadership was essential as the Sounders prepared for the playoffs. The team missed eight players due to FIFA’s international break that ended Monday. The complete roster wasn’t in full training until Thursday, leaving veteran players, such as Lodeiro, to fill in gaps.
The Sounders are expected to have winger Victor Rodriguez (oblique) and defender Xavier Arreaga (yellow-card accumulation) back for the matchup against Dallas. Although Dallas holds the season edge against Seattle this season at 1-0-1, neither side had all of their first-choice players available for selection.
Lodeiro missed the 2-1 road loss in June due to a yellow-card accumulation suspension.
“He is a good captain,” Schmetzer said. “He leads by example. You see him out here talking to some of the young kids. (Nico) certainly uses his voice to have influence.”
Lodeiro’s most cherished influence is his family. The youngest of three, Lodeiro and wife Micaela have two of their own in son Leandro and daughter Rafaela, who turns 2 later this month. Both children join their father during the players’ walk onto the field for game days.
On Saturday, Lodeiro hopes they’re the beginning steps toward winning another championship.
“My first time in Seattle we won the championship and it was awesome,” Lodeiro said. “It’s a very good memory for me but now it’s in the past and I want to play in the present.”
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.