SEATTLE — You know something momentous has happened at a sporting event when no one wants to leave. Given the history that was made at Lumen Field on Wednesday, you couldn’t blame anyone connected with the Seattle Sounders for wanting to stick around.
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 plentiful as the cheers in the stands. The sea of green-shirted fans surged and jumped amid the euphoria. Seattle defender Nouhou Tolo waved a Cameroon flag; forward Fredy Montero wore a Colombian one around his waist. Kids did impromptu snow angels in the confetti. And the crowd roared as Seattle captain Nicolas Lodeiro raised the trophy.
It is a history-making moment for the Sounders and MLS. It had been over 20 years since an MLS side could claim continental supremacy — the first such triumph since the competition went to a home-and-away format in the knockout rounds back in 2002.
Over the years, the CCL has been littered with moments where MLS sides were done in by superior talent. But on those occasions when an MLS team looked poised for a possible breakthrough, they also seemed to get overwhelmed when circumstances went against them. Those moments came in all manner of ways: missed chances, injuries, questionable refereeing decisions, the list goes on. Add in an unforgiving calendar, and there was almost a sense of inevitability about when an MLS team would succumb.
In this edition of the tournament, the expectations surrounding the Sounders 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 sellout crowd of 68,741 on Wednesday was hoping to push their heroes over the line. That pressure can weigh heavy, but on this occasion, it had the desired effect.
“I was on the bench when everyone walked out and you heard the clap [from the fans], I had chills,” Kelyn Rowe said. “I had a big smile on my face.”
Manager Brian Schmetzer added: “The connection to the fans and the players is the spirit of this club. And you guys heard it. When the teams walked out tonight, that was awesome. It was really awesome. You guys felt the energy in the building. The players felt it. It was spectacular.”
Yet even as Seattle was on the front foot early, enough of those old, haunting elements showed themselves to hint that history might be repeating itself. In particular, the injury-induced substitutions of Nouhou and Joao Paulo within the game’s first 30 minutes had the potential to knock Seattle off its stride. And it did for a stretch. A Pumas side that had been second best began to settle in, and seemed set to seize control of the game.
But instead of crumbling, the Sounders weathered the blows, relied on their depth — which included Rowe and 16-year-old academy product Obed Vargas — and rode the cold-blooded finishing of Raul Ruidiaz and the playmaking of Lodeiro to prevail.
The win amounts to a badly needed feather in the cap of MLS. For what has seemed like forever, MLS commissioner Don Garber has been touting how the league’s goal was to be the best in the world by some seemingly random date. Granted, it is part of Garber’s job to talk up the league, but this laudable goal, however you define it, seemed to ignore the fact that you have to take care of business in your own region before you can start thinking of competing with the rest of the world.
Now MLS can start to have dreams that are a bit more grounded in reality. Granted, it’s going to take more than one title to claim regional dominance, but that can’t begin until the first win is in the books. That is something that MLS now has.
And it has to Seattle to thank. Other teams have claimed championships during Seattle’s MLS existence, but the Sounders have been impressive for their consistency in a salary-cap league, making the postseason every year, and reaching the MLS Cup final four times. Add in a Supporters Shield and four U.S. Open Cup crowns, and it’s clear that trophies are the expectation rather than a goal.
That kind of success takes planning, which if done right begets depth to go along with talent. That was on display Wednesday. Vargas and Rowe filled in capably and provided a foundation for Seattle to reassert itself.
“It’s always difficult to lose [two] starters, especially Joao and Nouhou, who are difference-makers,” midfielder Cristian Roldan said. “But the reality is are our front office has done a great job this offseason creating depth. It’s great to have a good team on paper, but you also have to show that we’re a good team on the field. So those guys stepped up. It was the next man mentality. A 16-year-old and a 10-year veteran coming in for those two guys is something that 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 off Diogo and past a stranded Alfredo Talavera in the Pumas goal. His second in the 80th minute finished off a gorgeous team goal involving Jordan Morris and Lodeiro. Lodeiro’s clincher, cleaning up after Morris’ effort was touched off the post by Talavera, put some gloss on the score.
“Raul is a killer, in a good way, not in a bad way,” Schmetzer said. “And, you know how in the NFL, they have the franchise tag players? Isn’t that what they what they have? You can call Nico the franchise player.”
Seattle’s defending came through as well. Sandwiched around Ruidiaz’s goals was a spell of sustained pressure by Pumas that forced Seattle goalkeeper Stefan Frei into one sprawling save. But then prized offseason signing Albert Rusnak provided a bit of composure on the ball and kick-started the sequence that led to Ruidiaz’s second tally. All of a sudden, the Sounders were running downhill all the way to the CCL title.
The ensuing celebrations had their moments of contrast. Schmetzer did what he could to deflect praise to everyone in the organization. Even in the moment of arguably his biggest triumph, he was reluctant to get drawn in to the historical import. “Give me six months,” he said. One suspects that once he has a glass of wine with wife Kristine, the magnitude of the victory will start to sink in, but for now, he’s “living in the moment.”
“It’s been a team effort to push this over the line, I can’t understate it,” he added. “This is a hard tournament to win. And yes, we accomplished it and they’re all happy in there. We’re going to move forward. We’ve got a game against Dallas on the weekend.”
Sounders GM and president of soccer Garth Lagerwey wasn’t holding back and didn’t hesitate to revel in the win. For him, it was about redemption. Lagerwey had been down a similar road in the CCL when he was GM of Real Salt Lake back in 2011, only for that side to fall agonizingly short. The CCL holy grail is in his possession at last. “This is a long time coming,” he said. “Personally, I didn’t know if I was ever going to get back [to the final]. It’s 11 years. To do it with the Sounders and do it this way and do it with these fans is really special.”
“We’re the tip of the spear,” he said. “But there’s a whole vanguard coming behind us. And with a league on the rise, the Leagues Cup competition becomes so exciting now because it’s truly competitive. You’ve got the best generation of American players who come into play in the World Cup. It’s just such an exciting time to be part of American soccer.”
It’s a historic one as well.