By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Apr 27, 2022) US Soccer Players – There aren’t many places the Seattle Sounders haven’t been before. Back in the heyday of the NASL, the Sounders were a fixture of a soccer revival notable for big crowds and big names. Seattle’s soccer team played for two titles and had the honor of opening the Kingdome with more than 58,000 in attendance in 1976 against Pele and the Cosmos.
The club’s return to life in the 90s led to several successful seasons in lower divisions of American soccer, including four years that ended in championships between 1994 and 2008. That success led directly to MLS expansion and the entry into the new top division in North American soccer.
Seattle’s MLS history includes two MLS Cup titles, two other MLS Cup final appearances, a Supporters’ Shield, and four US Open Cup championships. They set new standards for what was possible for MLS in the stands, prompting a new ambitious era of rapid expansion and stadium building. The Sounders are the most successful club in the modern era of Major League Soccer, and the race isn’t particularly close.
If there’s a domestic honor to win, the Sounders have won it and are a candidate to win it again this season. The club might be the best-supported team in the United States or Canada.
So let’s review. The Sounders have been original NASL finalists, opened a domed stadium in front of a massive crowd, won titles in the A-League and USL1, ushered in a new era of big MLS attendance, won two MLS Cup titles, claimed a Supporters’ Shield, and lifted four US Open Cup trophies. Throw in the old Trans-Atlantic Cup they won back in 1981 and it’s worth asking what’s left?
The Concacaf Champions League.
On Wednesday night, the Sounders will begin the last stretch of their quest to win the one trophy they don’t have in their display case. They’ll face UNAM Pumas of Liga MX in the first leg of the Champions League final. The Sounders are the latest in a line of MLS clubs trying to upend 20 years of history by beating a Liga MX club.
If the Sounders want to become the first team from MLS to claim a Champions League title, they’ll need a strong performance at the Estadio Olimpico Universitario in Mexico City. It’s unlikely that the MLS side will find itself with an impossible task in the second-leg in Seattle next week regardless of Wednesday’s outcome, but some scorelines will unnecessarily raise the level of difficulty.
Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer has tweaked his roster for weeks to get the most out of his team in the Champions League. Seattle’s MLS season has suffered because of that approach, but it’s clear the Sounders view its international foray as the top priority.
Strangely given the tournament’s history, some have Seattle as the favorites over Pumas. It’s a difficult mental hurdle for those who watched MLS clubs crash and burn year after year to accept that thinking, but the surprise story of Pumas’ run changed the dynamic. Pumas is not one of Mexico’s richer clubs. The group of players that helped the team reach the final is largely young and untested.
Carrying the favorite tag only amps up the pressure on the Sounders to complete the task and bring glory not just to Seattle but to MLS. The league’s protracted wait for a winner took so long that the scene has now shifted. With the Leagues Cup arriving next season and FIFA expanding the Club World Cup, the perception of the Champions League might change.
For the moment, however, Pumas and Seattle are both desperate to win the title. Pumas hasn’t won a Concacaf championship since 1989 and does not want to be the first Mexican club to lose to an MLS opponent in the final.
For all of Seattle’s success and relative importance in its home market, the club spent the last few weeks pulling out all the stops to educate its fans and promote the home leg on May 4. It’s an admission that it’s not easy to get support out on a weeknight for non-MLS opposition. The Sounders want the biggest home-field advantage possible. That means going above and beyond in the effort to sell tickets. League matches are on the calendar for months. The Sounders only confirmed their place in the Champions League final on April 13.
Ahead of the Sounders’ home date against Inter Miami on April 16, general manager Garth Lagerwey took to the stadium public address system to encourage the faithful to show up to Lumen Field on May 4.
“I stand before you tonight to ask your support not just for tonight, but for May 4,” Lagerwey announced. “For what will be the biggest game in club history. No American team has ever won the tournament. No MLS team has ever won the tournament. This game on May 4 is for immortality. This game is for the whole city of Seattle, the whole community. If you buy one more Sounders ticket in your lifetime, make it for May 4. You’ll be able to tell your kids that you were there when the Sounders took a shot at history. Who here will help us take on the world?”
Lagerwey’s entreaty might have overstated the legacy winning a Champions League title will convey to the Sounders, but who can blame him for invoking themes of “immortality.” There’s no higher honor available to MLS teams and Seattle will always be remembered as the first MLS winner in the Champions League era if the club can pull off the feat.
The Sounders backed up Lagerwey’s pro wrestling promo-style speech with a Champions League final hype video featuring Sounders minority owner and Seattle sports legend Marshawn Lynch. Lynch, in his trademark and endearing style, encouraged fans to attend the Champions League final second leg in Seattle by terming it a “big (expletive) game”. The video featured the club’s famous band, the Sound Wave, and cuts of Lynch declaring that the Sounders needed fans in the upper reaches of Lumen Field.
While the Sounders haven’t been here before, MLS has. Back in 2018, Toronto FC was in a similar position to this year’s Sounders when they hosted the second-leg of a clash against Chivas. The Reds came as close as they could, ultimately falling on penalties. TFC then went on to miss the playoffs. The problem with putting so much emphasis on one two-legged series is that, if things don’t go your way, the disappointment could derail the rest of your season.
Then again, this is one of the few places the Sounders have never been before. Of course, they’re going to make a big deal out of reaching uncharted territory. When you’ve won everything else, the one trophy you don’t have is going to be the most important trophy there is. No pressure. It’s just for immortality.
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