Albert Rusnak thought he knew enough about MLS after five years playing for Real Salt Lake. Then he became a first-time free agent last fall.
“It wasn’t easy,” Rusnak said Friday after signing with the Sounders FC. “I imagined free agency completely different than what it turned out to be. I’m not so familiar with everything and all of the rules in MLS. I started to know them when I entered free agency. It was a process.”
Rusnak’s arrival is a direct result of the MLS Players Association’s contentious negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement with the league. A process the MLSPA had to broach three times due to the coronavirus pandemic suspending play in March 2020 and MLS enacting its “force majeure” clause in December 2020 after a reported $1 billion in losses.
Under the old CBA, the player threshold for free agency was to be 28 years old and a minimum of eight MLS seasons. MLSPA was able to lower eligibility to age 24 and five years of service.
The change saw 127 players enter the free-agency pool — a 149% increase in 2021-22 compared to the 2019-20 seasons, according to figures provided by MLSPA. And one of the biggest names on the list was Rusnak, a 27-year-old attacking midfielder who captained Real to the Western Conference playoff finals last year.
Craig Waibel, the Sounders senior vice president of soccer and sporting director, said it took three seconds to decide if Seattle should target Rusnak once the midfielder’s name was spotted on the MLS free-agency list in November. Waibel held a similar position with Real and lured Rusnak from Dutch side FC Groningen in 2017, signing him to a designated player contract.
Sounders assistant Freddy Juarez coached Rusnak at RSL, including a stint as head coach from 2019 through August 2021.
“It’s nice to not have to guess,” Waibel said of pitching Rusnak to the Sounders technical staff. “To be able to speak openly in a room and really describe a player. Freddy has a ton of experience managing Albert. I really just have experience bringing Albert into a club and watching him develop.”
Rusnak started 134 of his 140 regular season matches with RSL, scoring 41 goals and totaling 39 assists. The Claret-and-Cobalt advanced to the postseason three times during Rusnak’s tenure.
The Slovakian international’s quality — he ranked fourth in MLS in shot-creating actions (149) and 10th in goal-creating actions (16) last season — prompted many to dismiss the likelihood of RSL letting one of their DPs walk. Rusnak’s signing is regarded as the biggest in MLS’s 27-year history in terms of a designated player signing with another MLS club.
Rusnak, a married father of two, also had multiple lucrative offers from European clubs.
“I’m like: ‘Rusnak’s not coming. Come on. This is the best player on our archrival’s team,’” said Garth Lagerwey, the Sounders president of soccer and general manager. “We were very lucky to be able to have some of the conversations that we had because there was some trust there. It wasn’t just jump off a cliff and go to some other team and hope for the best.”
Rusnak’s star power was the main draw of the Sounders’ opening training camp Friday, with other notable stars missing in Uruguayan midfielder Nico Lodeiro and Peruvian striker Raul Ruidiaz. Both remain in their respective countries and a timetable for their arrival wasn’t given.
Lodeiro was limited to 475 minutes, including the postseason, due to two knee surgeries last year. Ruidiaz finished the season dealing with a hamstring injury.
Lagerwey said signing Rusnak wasn’t related to Lodeiro’s health issues. Rusnak is a versatile player who could anchor the midfield along with Brazilian midfielder Joao Paulo or play out on either wing.
“(Nico’s) working his way back, and we have every belief that he’s going to be able to come back good as new,” Lagerwey said. “Albert was signed because we think he’s the best player for the group and that’s independent of whether Nico is playing, not playing.”
Rusnak adds depth for a club aiming, again, to make a long run in the CONCACAF Champions League tournament. The Sounders open with a series against F.C. Motagua on Feb. 17 in Honduras and Feb. 24 at Lumen Field. Seattle lost in the opening round in 2020.
The Rave Green also want to redeem losing their playoff opener, a first in club history, and return to the Leagues Cup title match. Considering the amount of experienced players the Sounders return — forward Will Bruin, keeper Stefan Cleveland, midfielder Kelyn Rowe, and striker Fredy Montero have all reached contract agreements — winning another U.S. Open Cup title isn’t a stretch.
The high ambitions, talented roster and environment created by a faithful 34,000 fans at Lumen Field are among the reasons Rusnak said he chose Seattle. And he welcomes the expectation that he will help achieve those goals.
That’s the familiar part about MLS now that the free agency courting is over.
“This is what I want — to have a real chance (and) I believe here that chance is definitely on the table,” Rusnak said. “I can’t remember the last time in my career where I didn’t have pressure. Every time you change teams, the expectations are high and there’s always pressure. I signed for RSL in 2017 and I was replacing a legend (Javier Morales). Again, pressure. And now coming to a team that is expected to do very well in every competition that we will play in and again there’s pressure. It’s a good pressure because as athletes, I believe if there’s no pressure then I don’t think you get the best out of yourself.”
NOTE: Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer announced the hiring of Andy Rose as the third and final assistant coach. Rose, 31, played for Seattle from 2012-15. The Australian midfielder played 19 matches for the Vancouver Whitecaps FC last year.