By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Apr 14, 2022) US Soccer Players – In the end, Seattle’s margin of victory was a safe one, 4-2 on aggregate. New York City FC nonetheless made them earn every inch of their place in the Concacaf Champions League final.
Wednesday’s second leg at Red Bull Arena was just a few seconds old when the first melee broke out. A bruising late aerial challenge from NYCFC’s Taty Castellanos sent Xavier Arreaga sprawling onto the grass almost immediately after the opening kickoff. Players on both sides confronted one another angrily. That set the tone for probably one of the most intense games between MLS teams outside the league’s postseason.
NYCFC needed to overcome a 3-1 first-leg deficit. While Seattle’s Raul Ruidiaz’s clinical first-half finish ultimately pushed that dream out of reach, the entire match crackled with life. We watched the current MLS Cup champions severely test the closest MLS has to a modern dynasty. While the City Football Group’s US outpost may someday grow into something on that scale, the Sounders have a significant head start. Now only UNAM Pumas stand in the way of them officially confirming as much with their league’s first-ever capture of the CCL trophy.
“We were talking about showing the intensity and the energy that we know this team can do, and today they were on fire. They were all over Seattle, who is a really, really good football team,” NYCFC coach Ronny Deila said afterwards. “It was a tough match. But in the end, we were not good enough inside the two (penalty) boxes compared to them, and that’s why they are in the final and we are not.”
Seattle is the fifth MLS franchise to reach the final of the modern iteration of North America’s top club competition. They join Real Salt Lake in 2011, Montreal Impact in 2015, Toronto FC in 2018 and LAFC two years ago. Suffering an impressively wide range of heartbreak, none of them completed the mission to win the Champions League. Liga MX’s dominance dates back to 2008, the start of the current era.
Then again, none of them impressed quite the way the Sounders have this spring, either. The Rave Green withstood a long trip to Honduras and dispatched Motagua in a round-of-16 series that kicked off more than a week before MLS’s opening day. In the next round they thoroughly vanquished quality Liga MX opposition in Club Leon. And now they’ve handled their league’s reigning champs, all while weathering a spate of injuries to key starters and adapting their tactics as needed.
“We’ve had to have a lot of players on this team step forward in critical moments, starting with Honduras, starting with Motagua. Then you have to play Leon, which is a very good team. And now we had to play the best team in MLS last year, the champions, MLS Cup winners, so we’ve had a hard road,” said Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer on Wednesday night. “So yes, we have needed everyone, everyone on the roster, even the young kids, to make sure that level of training is high. So I congratulate that group for doing many, many good things. And our preparation will revolve around the same things, that if they stick together, if they continue the process and how they do things, that’s a very tight group. That’s a very good group. So we’ll just see what we can do in the final.”
Pumas figure to be another very tough assignment for Seattle, even if they aren’t among the current Liga MX elite. Coach Andres Lillini has built a spirited, attack-minded collective on a limited budget. Winless on the road in this year’s CCL, they have used home-field advantage to full effect, advancing past Saprissa, New England Revolution, and Cruz Azul via home-leg victories. Mexico City’s high altitude will test the fitness and focus of the Sounders just as it has other US and Canadian teams for decades.
“I think the one thing that we know is that we cannot play a second half that we played today, in Mexico. We’re going to run out of juice very quickly,” said Seattle goalkeeper Stefan Frei after his man-of-the-match display on Wednesday. “We put in a lot of effort, but if we’re going to put ourselves under so much pressure in Mexico City, it’s going to be very, very difficult. So they have a good side and we’re going to look at what makes them tick, and also maybe what we can exploit or what we want to target. But it’ll be a good final.”
MLS Cup winners in 2016 and 2019, the Sounders have now reached a final in six of Schmetzer’s seven seasons in charge. The club has never failed to participate in the MLS playoffs since its expansion debut in 2009. In contrast to several fellow 2022 CCL participants, Seattle has generally remained competitive in league play even while calling on young players as it competes on two fronts.
With their first-leg visit to Pumas’ Estadio Olímpico Universitario set for April 27, Schmetzer effectively confirmed that he’ll play his kids against Inter Miami at Lumen Field this weekend.
“The constant theme throughout this club, the culture of the club, is to win every game, every trophy, every competition. We take all the games seriously, we don’t buy the excuse where if you commit to one tournament, you can’t proceed or do well in the other. We don’t buy that,” he said. “That’s the ethos we try and push into our younger players. Because we’re going to have to have a bunch of younger players come on and play against Miami. But the expectation there is still to win.”
Just about every MLS player that’s reached a CCL final has said they recognize and embrace the gravity of the moment, only to be outdone by superior talent in clutch moments. Now the Sounders will step up to take their swing.
“There’s very select few opportunities to make history, alright?” noted Frei. “There’s still one elusive one for the MLS. If you can be that one, it’s going to be massive for your career, for the franchise, for everybody involved. And what a massive opportunity.”
Charles Boehm is a Washington, DC-based writer and the editor of The Soccer Wire. Contact him at:email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at:http://twitter.com/cboehm.
More from Charles Boehm:
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- Beginnings, endings, and perseverance for USMNT at Azteca
- Octagonal endgame: The USMNT’s massive March window
- Jake Edwards on USL’s future
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