By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (May 6, 2022) US Soccer Players – No late dramatic collapse. No bad luck. No questionable referring decisions. No wasted chances. No hearts in throats. No twist of fate to undo rounds of advancement at the final hurdle, preventing a breakthrough achievement for a club and a league. In the end, no doubt and no curse.
If we’re being accurate, no one called Major League Soccer’s inability to win the Concacaf Champions League a “curse,” exactly. Occasionally MLS teams ran headfirst into some pretty bad breaks in the competition. Still, the prevailing wisdom wasn’t that the league’s entrants were star-crossed. It was that they weren’t good enough.
Sixteen straight years of Mexican clubs winning the continental championship drove home that conclusion. Money. Mentality. The schedule. Promotion and relegation. They were all thrown out as reasons why MLS couldn’t beat Liga MX and, in some people’s minds, never would. MLS wasn’t good enough until it was.
Or until the Seattle Sounders were. Wednesday’s emphatic 3-0 victory at Lumen Field in front of a Concacaf Champions League-record crowd secured for MLS’s model franchise. It was the one trophy the club lacked in its well-stocked cabinet.
That it was the Sounders that ended MLS’s depressing run of failure in the competition comes as no surprise to anyway who has watched the club rise from a mold-shattering expansion team to the biggest club in American soccer. Because that’s what Seattle Sounders FC is. The biggest club in American soccer. Everyone else is chasing the Sounders.
The Sounders passed the LA Galaxy years ago as the glamour outfit of MLS, but the triumph over UNAM Pumas with more than 68,000 fans in their stadium puts Seattle into a class no one in the league has ever reached. The Galaxy still has more trophies in total and was denied the Club World Cup opportunity they earned back in the early 2000s, but the Sounders now have the biggest prize in the region to go with six pieces of domestic silverware.
Seattle’s Champions League win was built on a foundation laid first by Adrian Hanauer and legendary head coach Sigi Schmid and reinforced by their successors, Garth Lagerwey and Brian Schmetzer. Lagerwey, a man who came agonizingly close to winning a continental championship with Real Salt Lake in 2011, proved again why he is considered the best practitioner of MLS roster wizardry in the league.
If every team had a Lagerwey, MLS would be a better league. His mastery of the league’s byzantine budget rules and ability to recruit is an advantage for the Sounders that is difficult to quantify. Where other MLS teams have struggled to build real depth, Lagerwey has strengthened the club from year-to-year.
The Sounders are excellent at finding players ready to buy into the culture of the team. There’s accountability in Seattle, something that is often lacking in many MLS markets. A demanding but welcoming fan base asks a lot of the players and shows up in big numbers to support them while at the same time providing an environment players want to inhabit.
A few moments on Wednesday night stand out, both as potential pitfalls that could have submarined another club’s quest to win a trophy and as examples of Schmetzer’s leadership.
In the early stages of the game, injuries to fullback Nouhou Tolo and midfielder Joao Paulo forced Schmetzer to make unplanned substitutions. By the 25th minute, the Sounders were down two starters and two subs, a handicap that would cause havoc for most MLS clubs. Instead, Seattle showed its depth.
Kelyn Rowe, a former attacker who has found a second life in Seattle as a utility man, stepped into Nouhou’s spot. What the Sounders lost in forays forward and recovery speed, they made up for with Rowe’s skill on the ball and experience. Rowe is an excellent example of the work done by Lagerwey to recruit depth across the team to deal with the rigors of playing for trophies in multiple competitions.
Obed Vargas, the 16-year-old Alaska native in the first blushes of his professional career out of the Sounders academy, subbed on for Joao Paolo. Seattle’s developmental system isn’t as prolific as that of Philadelphia or FC Dallas, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t deliver professional-ready talent to the first team. The club’s philosophy meant that Vargas would get his chance when he was good enough earlier this season. That initial experience paid big dividends against Pumas.
The last notable moment that came just before the final whistle was the mass substitution of Jordan Morris, Raul Ruidiaz, and Nico Lodeiro. Because of the early injuries, it appeared that Schmetzer would struggle to keep his team fresh with changes in the remaining few substitution windows.
Instead, his side rose to the occasion, and he was able to give his trio of attacking heroes the curtain call they deserved. The moment embodied why players want to play for Schmetzer in Seattle for the Sounders. Early enthusiasm and smart leadership set the tone back in 2009 that carries through to this day.
The Sounders are continental champions and deserved ones. We can put aside what it means for MLS as a league or whether there is another team capable of matching this achievement any time soon. Give the Sounders the spotlight. They deserve it.
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