By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Apr 18, 2022) US Soccer Players – MLS has hit many milestones in recent years. The league celebrated a quarter-century in business, embarking on its 28th this past February. They’ve mushroomed to 28 clubs, and the biggest market finally produced a champion just last season. Fans are back in the stadiums after the worst of the pandemic, and TV ratings have seen some growth.
The one thing missing from the timeline of milestones is winning the Concacaf Champions League. Since the format change in 2008, that’s become an annual disappointment for MLS. This time around, it’s Seattle representing the league in the final, playing Liga MX club UNAM Pumas over two-legs, and hosting the deciding game.
As in some of the previous editions, MLS already knew they’d get a finalist. The draw put Seattle and NYCFC on the same side of the bracket in the semifinals. The Sounders, one of the best teams in the league over the last few years, got the better of the defending MLS champions over two legs, winning the series 4-2 on aggregate. What remains now is for Seattle is to make history and break the long streak of Liga MX teams winning the title.
Four MLS teams have previously come up short in the final all against Liga MX opponents. Most recently, that was LAFC in 2020. In the Champions Cup era dating back to 1962, only two MLS teams, DC United in 1998 and Los Angeles Galaxy in 2000, have ever won the title.
“There are select few opportunities to make history,” Seattle goalkeeper Stefan Frei said after the game. “There is one elusive trophy for MLS, and if you can do that, it’ll be massive. What a massive opportunity.”
Seattle travels to Mexico City to take on Pumas in the first leg on April 26 at Estadio Olimpico Universitario. The Sounders host the return leg on May 3, where they could conceivably lift the trophy before a home crowd at what is expected to be a sellout at Lumen Field. The title would book Seattle a place in the next FIFA Club World Cup.
The Sounders have every other title likely to fill an MLS trophy case. That includes four US Open Cups, a Supporters’ Shield, and their two MLS Cups. In the coming weeks, coach Brian Schmetzer said he looks to build on the team’s past successes by adding the Concacaf Champions League.
“It’s a cup that the club certainly covets. I think that is something we have made public and said it was a goal of ours,” Schmetzer told reporters following last Wednesday’s 1-1 draw in the semifinals that put his side through. “The constant theme and culture of this club is to win every game, every trophy, every competition and take all the games seriously.”
What are the challenges of facing Pumas? Schmetzer said they “want to enjoy the moment” and take a look at their upcoming opponent this week.
“We have to live in the moment and enjoy the moment,” Schmetzer added. “Then we’ll watch the tape and do all the things that we do to see what we can take out of these two games (against NYCFC) and apply it to the rest of the year.”
A theme that has followed Seattle around the past few years is its wonderful attack, spearheaded by Nicolas Lodeiro, and featuring strikers Jordan Morris and Raul Ruidiaz. In recent weeks, however, the team’s four-man defense and goalkeeping have stolen the spotlight for their ability to stifle opponents and help build up play from the back.
“We were able to withstand (NYCFC’s offensive pressure) but not break,” Frei said. Seattle has only conceded three goals over six CCL games this season while going 3-0-3. That’s another example of what Frei brings to the squad, but Pumas raises the level needed to succeed.
“There are always things we can improve on,” Frei said. “We’re hungry. We’re happy to be able to get a chance at a trophy.”
As for Pumas, they eliminated the New England Revolution in the quarterfinals, scoring three goals in the return leg to take the series on penalties. In the semifinals, Pumas got the best of favorites Cruz Azul in an all-Liga MX affair, winning the series 2-1 on aggregate after holding their opponents to a scoreless draw in the second-leg.
Pumas, coached by Andres Lillini, has several offensive stars that could change the outcome of games. Juan Ignacio Dinenno, the tournament’s top scorer with seven goals, joined UNAM just last year and has 28 goals in 76 Liga MX matches. Frei and his teammates will need to stay sharp to keep the 28-year-old Argentine striker off the score sheet.
Seattle has gotten off to a slow start in MLS, with their 1-0 home loss to Inter Milan on Saturday just the latest example. They’ve made up for it in the Champions League. Seattle is a team that embraces competing on multiple fronts. At least for a brief moment, everyone in the league should be rooting for the Sounders to make history. It’s a milestone MLS needs if it wants to continue its upward trajectory while lessening the gap with Liga MX.
Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to US Soccer Players. He is also the author of A History of the World Cup: 1930-2018.
More from Clemente Lisi:
- MLS tactics early in 2022
- The United States and Canada at the 2022 World Cup
- Three trends to watch early in the 2022 MLS season
- The USMNT visits Estadio Azteca tied on points with Mexico
Photo by Howard C Smith – ISIPhotos.com