SEATTLE – You know something big has happened at a sporting event when no one wants to leave. Given the story that unfolded at Lumen Field on Wednesday, you can’t blame anyone connected to the Seattle Sounders for wanting to stay.
Seattle prevailed in the second leg of the CONCACAF Champions League (CCL) final with a 3-0 win over Mexican side Pumas, completing a 5-2 aggregate triumph. In the aftermath, the hugs on the field were almost as numerous as the cheers in the stands. The sea of green-shirted fans leapt and jumped amid the euphoria. Seattle defender Nouhou Tolo waves a Cameroonian flag; forward Fredy Montero wore a Colombian around his waist. The children made impromptu snow angels out of the confetti. And the crowd roared as Seattle captain Nicolas Lodeiro lifted the trophy.
This is a historic moment for the Sounders and MLS. It has been more than 20 years since an MLS side could claim continental supremacy – the first such triumph since the competition switched to a home-and-away format in the round of 16 in 2002.
Over the years, the CCL has been littered with times when MLS teams have been taken down by superior talent. But on those occasions when an MLS team seemed poised for an eventual breakthrough, they also seemed overwhelmed when circumstances went against them. These moments came in all sorts of ways: missed chances, injuries, questionable refereeing decisions, the list goes on. Add to that an unforgiving schedule, and there was almost a feeling of inevitability as to when an MLS team would succumb.
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In this edition of the tournament, the expectations surrounding the Sounders have added to the tension. They had done the hard part in the first leg by getting a 2-2 draw in the altitude of Mexico City. And the announced sold-out crowd of 68,741 on Wednesday hoped to push their heroes over the line. This pressure can be heavy, but this time it had the desired effect.
“I was on the bench when everyone came out and you heard the shot [from the fans]I got chills,” Kelyn Rowe said. “I had a big smile on my face.”
Manager Brian Schmetzer added: “Connecting with the fans and the players is the spirit of this club. And you heard it. When the teams came out tonight it was great. It was really great. You felt the energy in the building. The players felt it. It was spectacular.”
Yet even as Seattle took center stage early on, enough of those old, haunting elements showed up to hint that history might repeat itself. In particular, the injury-induced substitutions of Nouhou and Joao Paulo in the opening 30 minutes of the game had the potential to derail Seattle. And he did for a while. A Pumas side that had been second best started to settle in and looked set to take control of the game.
But instead of falling apart, the Sounders withstood the beatings, relied on their depth – which included Rowe and 16-year-old academy product Obed Vargas – and rode Raul Ruidiaz’s cool finish and Lodeiro’s game to win.
Victory equates to a much-needed feather in the MLS cap. For what seemed like an eternity, MLS commissioner Don Garber touted that the league’s goal was to be the best in the world on a seemingly random date. Granted, it’s part of Garber’s job to talk about the league, but that laudable goal, however you define it, seems to ignore the fact that you have to take care of business in your own region before you can start thinking about competing with the rest of the world.
Now MLS can start having dreams a little more grounded in reality. Admittedly, it will take more than one title to claim regional dominance, but it can’t start until the first win is in the books. This is something MLS has now.
And he has Seattle to thank. Other teams have won championships during MLS’s existence in Seattle, but the Sounders have been impressive for their consistency in a salary-capped league, making the playoffs every year and reaching the MLS Cup final. four times. Add a supporters’ shield and four US Open Cup crowns, and it’s clear that trophies are an expectation rather than a goal.
This kind of success requires planning which, if done well, breeds depth to accompany the talent. It was on Wednesday. Vargas and Rowe skillfully filled in and provided a foundation for Seattle to reassert itself.
“It’s always hard to lose [two] starters, especially Joao and Nouhou, who make the difference,” midfielder Cristian Roldan said. “But the reality is that our front office has done a great job this offseason creating depth. It’s good to have a good team on paper, but you also have to show that you’re a good team on the pitch. So these guys stepped in. It was the mentality of the next man. A 16-year veteran and a 10-year veteran replacing those two guys is something you can’t replicate in this league.”
Granted, bad breaks are easily blunted when you have a ruthless finisher like Ruidiaz. His first tally just before half-time had an element of luck about it, deflecting Diogo and past a blocked Alfredo Talavera in the Pumas goal. His second in the 80th minute concluded a magnificent team goal involving Jordan Morris and Lodeiro. Lodeiro’s clincher, cleaning up after Morris’ effort was hit by Talavera’s post, put some shine on the scoreline.
“Raul is a killer, in a good way, not a bad way,” Schmetzer said. “And, you know how in the NFL they have franchise players? Isn’t that what they have? You can call Nico the franchise player.”
Seattle’s defense also came out on top. Sandwiched around Ruidiaz’s goals, a period of sustained pressure from the Pumas forced Seattle goalkeeper Stefan Frei into a sprawling save. But then sought-after offseason signing Albert Rusnak provided some composure on the ball and kicked off the streak that led to Ruidiaz’s second count. Suddenly, the Sounders were going all the way down to the CCL title.
The celebrations that followed had their moments of contrast. Schmetzer did what he could to deflect praise from everyone in the organization. Even at the time of his greatest triumph, he was reluctant to be carried away by historical significance. “Give me six months,” he said. It is suspected that once he has had a glass of wine with his wife Kristine the magnitude of the victory will begin to be felt, but for now he is “living in the moment”.
“It was a team effort to push this over the line, I can’t underestimate that,” he added. “It’s a tough tournament to win. And yeah, we got it done and they’re all happy in there. We’re going to move on. We have a game against Dallas this weekend.”
Sounders GM and President of Soccer Garth Lagerwey didn’t hold back and didn’t shy away from reveling in the victory. For him, it was about redemption. Lagerwey had taken a similar path in the CCL when he was general manager of Real Salt Lake in 2011, only to have that team fall woefully short. The Holy Grail of the CCL is finally in his possession. “It’s a long time coming,” he said. “Personally, I didn’t know if I was going to come back one day. [to the final]. It’s 11 years old. To do it with the Sounders and to do it that way and to do it with those fans is really special.”
Lagerwey is of the opinion that Seattle is also not unique in terms of MLS teams prevalent in the CCL. He talked about teams like New York City FC and LAFC pushing the league level higher.
“We are the tip of the spear,” he said. “But there’s a whole vanguard behind us. And with a league on the rise, the League Cup competition is getting so exciting now because it’s really competitive. You have the best generation of American players coming into playing in the World Cup. It’s so exciting to be a part of American football.”
It is also a history.