Nicolas Lodeiro finds some magic as Sounders keep winning

SEATTLE — Nicolas Lodeiro’s latest crowd-pleasing escapade had a little bit of Harry Houdini to it.

For almost 24 minutes of Sunday’s match between the Sounders and Real Salt Lake, RSL kept Seattle’s newest Designated Player bound with a series of defensive restraints. It limited Lodeiro’s time on the ball and clogged up passing lanes, forced him to grimace beneath the weight of their focused attention.

Salt Lake looked comfortable, settled in as 39,491 paying customers started to slump back into chairs, readying themselves for 90 minutes of attrition.

And then, with a magician’s flourish and in the blink of an eye, Lodeiro picked the lock and stepped unencumbered into the sunlight.

Lodeiro scored his first Sounders goal midway through the first half and added his third assist in as many MLS appearances as Seattle defeated Salt Lake 2-1 on Sunday at CenturyLink Field.

With the win, the Sounders (8-12-3) pulled five points behind sixth-place Portland for the Western Conference’s final playoff spot. The Cascadian rivals face off twice in the coming two weekends, starting next Sunday in this very stadium.

But rivalry-week hype can wait until Monday. On Sunday evening, most of it was reserved for Lodeiro, who has been a weekly rebuttal to the notion that midseason additions must struggle to adjust to MLS.

“I think he had a head start on some of the physical conditioning stuff that makes it difficult,” said interim Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer, referencing Lodeiro’s run to last month’s Copa Libertadores semifinals with former club Boca Juniors. “… In identifying what our league is about, he did some of that homework before he came. On both of those fronts, I think he was ahead of the curve.”

The Sounders are unbeaten in three matches since Lodeiro’s arrival — and since Schmetzer took over from longtime coach Sigi Schmid.

“I’m not sure exactly what’s going on in their locker room, but I think it’s a mentality,” RSL coach Jeff Cassar said. “You can see a more aggressive team, all the way from the front to the back. They’ve got a little bit of spirit about them right now.”

With Lodeiro at the heart of the action, Seattle again looked like a team transformed.

Lodeiro’s goal was a sweet first-time strike of Andreas Ivanschitz’s well-placed centering pass, a dipping shot inside the left post. It forced RSL to open up just when it looked as if the visitors were finding their footing. It came just when Salt Lake, which entered the weekend in third place in the West and among the most stubbornly tenacious teams in the league, expected it least.

“I think we had him controlled, and I think his first good touch was the goal,” RSL defensive midfielder Kyle Beckerman said. “And that really got him going.”

Lodeiro soaked up attention and sprung his teammates for incisive runs. He connected with Clint Dempsey and encouraged Jordan Morris to pick at the seams of Salt Lake’s defensive formation.

His assist 13 minutes later was even more emblematic of his influence than his goal.

Lodeiro gathered Dempsey’s through ball — the veteran forward would also be credited with an assist for the sequence — and lifted his head up. Lodeiro and Morris spotted the open pocket of space, two pairs of eyes lighting up as the rookie made a confident run toward the near post.

Lodeiro put his pass on a dime, and Morris finished with a clean header.

“I think he just finds those runs,” Morris said. “I feel like I was making similar runs, but he finds those balls. … I know if I’m making that run, he has the quality and the vision to pick you out.”

Salt Lake pulled a goal back in the 62nd minute following what Seattle ‘keeper Stefan Frei described as a “boneheaded” giveaway that led to Joao Plata’s finish into an empty net.

The Sounders weathered a few nervous moments late, especially after Dempsey missed a penalty kick in the 82nd minute. But they held on.

Following the example of their newest leading man, Seattle escaped.

“He’s come and turned things around,” Schmetzer said. “The whole team has had a hand in that. It’s not just been one person. If I’m still a little bit hesitant to make him like a Jesus Christ or something like that … it’s a team game. It’s a team sport.

“The whole team rises up with him. That could be his biggest contribution aside from a goal and an assist tonight. He makes everybody else around him better.

“I’m not going to put too much pressure on his shoulders. The attention he is getting is deserving. That’s how I want to put it.”