This is the first in a three part series of posts about the Seattle Sounders’ win over Pumas UNAM in the Concacaf Champions League final last Wednesday. Seattle is the first MLS team to win Concacaf since 2000, and the first ever to do it in the Champions League format. This first part covers what it means for a Major League Soccer team to win it in a historical context, the second will cover Seattle’s relative uniqueness as a MLS team, and the third will cover what other MLS teams can do in the future to emulate the Sounders’ success.
What struck me about Seattle winning the Concacaf Champions League final on Wednesday night was how dramatic it wasn’t. I can’t say I personally had any fantastic visions of what it was going to look like when a Major League Soccer team finally got over the hump of winning the Concacaf Champions League, but I just figured it’d be more difficult for that theoretical team than it turned out to be for the actual Sounders team that dominated Pumas 3-0 on Wednesday.
It very rarely turns out to be easy for North American soccer teams in international competitions, be they MLS teams or US/Canadian international teams – They’re supposed to escape by the skin of their teeth. They’re supposed to just barely get by as the underdog, survive off of some bullshit late-match magic if they win, and they rarely do that. I always figured the first MLS team to breakthrough and win CCL would have a run somewhere between the 2015 Montreal run and the 2018 Toronto run – A good team that got a lot of lucky breaks that would take whichever side they faced in the final to extra time, maybe win on a late goal, maybe win in penalties, but I never thought we’d have a relatively comfortable understanding of the result of the first Concacaf Champions League final with ten minutes left to go.
Let me put it this way: The game kicked off at 9pm Central. I try to go to bed by 11pm at the latest on Wednesdays because I have to get up by 6:30am for my job. I didn’t expect to see Seattle lift the trophy live last night – Either I would be in bed because they won on penalties or found a goal deep into extra time, or Pumas would’ve won in regular time. Instead, the last thing that I saw consciously on Wednesday night was Seattle lifting the Concacaf Champions League trophy.
Immediately after the first leg of the match ended last week, with Seattle escaping Mexico City with a 2-2 draw headed back home, the painful memories of CCLs past flooded in to dampen any overly-arrogant expectations of a Sounders home triumph. It’s happened twice before – Real Salt Lake drew 2-2 in Monterrey for the first leg in 2012, and they lost 1-0 at home in the second. Montreal drew 2-2 in Mexico City against America in the first leg in 2015, and they lost 4-2 at home in the second. I personally expected more of the same to transpire on Wednesday, even with the reality that so much was stacked in Seattle’s favor (Pumas had worse injury luck than Seattle, they had to play hard in their league match on Sunday and then travel all the way to Seattle) I just expect MLS teams to wilt down the stretch against Mexican teams, it’s what always seems to happen. It happened to Seattle last year against Leon and LAFC the year prior against Tigres as well.
In all of those emotional and spiritual senses, Seattle just did not play like a Major League Soccer team in this year’s Concacaf Champions League. If I stripped the club and league names from the stories of both Seattle and UNAM in CCL this year, I think I would assume the roles were reversed:
Team 1 won their first round by getting a scoreless draw on the road in Central America and winning five-nil at home. They opened up a three-goal lead at home in the first leg of the quarterfinals against a team they’d played in the Leagues Cup final the year before and held on in the second leg on the road to win on aggregate 4-1. They did the same in the semifinal – Beating a team from their own league 3-1 at home, then holding on 1-1 in the second leg on the road.
Team 1 controlled seemingly every leg of every round, never panicked, never shirked from the biggest of moments, and looked like the superior team in every match.
Team 2 won their first round by getting a 2-2 draw on the road in Central America, then finished the job 4-1 at home in the second leg. They fell behind 3-0 on the road in the second leg, braving the elements and managing barely to keep the score at a level they could even feasibly come back from because the other team missed key chances late on, then in the second leg they managed a miraculous comeback to bring themselves even on aggregate and send the match to a shootout that they won. They managed a 2-1 victory in the first leg of the semifinals at home, then on the road they managed to hold on for dear life and keep the second leg 0-0 to advance to the finals. Team 2 overcame deficits of multiple goals and beat teams that they weren’t supposed to beat throughout their run to the final, their run looked miraculous, rather than dominant.
Then, in the final, because Team 2 had scraped by in the semifinals while Team 1 had dominated, Team 2 hosted the first leg of the final. Team 2 went up by two surprising goals in the first half – The first a penalty, which was initially saved but called back by the referee noting the keeper was off of his line, then retaken and converted, the second off of a cross that found a striker in the absolute perfect position to head home, all the while Team 1 had many excellent chances they failed to convert – Until Team 1 managed to draw two unlikely penalties in the second half, the second of which involved a player writhing around on the ground in order to get the VAR to make a technical call well into injury time. Team 2 had watched their home lead evaporate heading to the second leg.
Team 1 then dominated Team 2 in the second leg at home – A home leg where the crowd size nearly doubled what Team 1 had managed in the first, with unusual field conditions that Team 2 wasn’t used to (I know that’s sort of a stretch). They controlled the entire game, scored off of a surprising bounce in the first half, but never allowed Team 2 to convert before shutting the door in the 80th minute.
Team 1 reads like the typical dominant Liga MX side and Team 2 reads like the typical miracle-run MLS side, don’t they? How did that script manage to flip this year?
It feels like we skipped a chapter. One of those runs, be it in 2011, 2015, 2018 (which I acknowledge felt different from the other three), or 2020 was supposed to have culminated in an MLS team getting the monkey off of the back of the league collectively through some incredible, dramatic fashion, then runs like this where one MLS team just dominated their way through the tournament could become a normal occurrence. Seattle didn’t win this like the first MLS team to break through was supposed to, they won it like the second or third MLS team to break through was supposed to.
Really, that’s what surprises me about Seattle’s whole run – No single part of it surprised me at all. I remember looking at Seattle’s Starting XI during the pregame show before the first leg on FS1 and thinking “Yeah, that’s probably the best MLS Starting XI I’ve ever seen. That team should win Concacaf.” And they are, and they did. I kept waiting to be shocked, to be amazed that an MLS team had finally pulled it off, but I never was. I watched this Seattle team beat both Tigres and Santos Laguna last year, keep basically everybody but Brad Smith around, and then add Albert Rusnak in the offseason – Of course they were good enough to win this year. And congratulations to them – This is a big deal, even if their dominance made it feel like a normal-sized deal at some points.
I don’t know what this makes me think about the future of Major League Soccer teams in Concacaf. It’s definitely a good thing, long-term, that this has finally happened. Every year that the number in the phrase “An American team hasn’t won Concacaf in [blank] years” grew, the pressure and anxiety seemed to grow alongside it (and it would’ve been funny if either Toronto or Montreal had won their finals so that statement could continue to be true about American teams).
For example – The Beloved Jayhawks of Football had an infamous streak of nearly a decade between wins on the road, (2009 to 2018) and every road loss with which it grew seemed to make the prospect of finally getting over that hump seem more impossible, like there was a mental block. And when the streak finally ended with a mostly unremarkable blowout in Mount Pleasant, Michigan in 2018, I was more relieved than happy. I remember thinking two things – The first was a sort of schadenfreude that sportswriters would have to think up an entire new sentence to put in their game recaps where “Kansas hasn’t won a road game since beating UTEP in 2009”, and the second was the hope that finally getting the monkey off of their back would make future road wins more likely. This has indeed panned out, The Beloved Jayhawks of Football have now won road games in three of the past four seasons.
I am inclined to think that the future will probably reflect that for MLS teams in Concacaf as well. I don’t think it’ll be 20+ years of MLS dominance from now on, not by any measure – But Major League Soccer teams winning the CCL shouldn’t be that surprising of an occurrence from now on. I don’t think we’ll have league media members popping champagne after an MLS team wins CCL the next time that it happens, and I definitely don’t think we’ll have the whole league’s fan communities coming together to support a specific MLS side making a run, either.
That is surprising to me, that so many MLS fans celebrated Seattle winning this. I didn’t think it meant that much to the league community as a whole that a team generally considered a villain, the one with the #ACES hashtag, would get the league as a whole (Maybe save for their rivals – Certainly Portland and Vancouver, probably the LA teams and Toronto as well) to support them. I don’t know what that says about the state of MLS fan culture.
As much as fans of MLS teams might get ridiculed for saying “The Gap is Closing” year in and year out… The Gap is Closing. And I’m not just talking about the one in the mall I used to go to. There has been obvious progress that felt dumb to point to when nobody from MLS had won CCL even once, but it has happened – After the Galaxy’s win in the prior Concacaf Champions Cup in 2000, there were ten straight tournaments (2001-2010) where MLS teams couldn’t even reach the final. MLS teams appeared in four of the next ten (2011-2020), including three of the last five. It used to be a surprise if an MLS team made the semis, and there has been an MLS team in the semis each of the past six. The league has stapled on more and more arcane roster rules in the past few years which, if used right (and Seattle has used them very well, which I’ll get to in a little bit), have helped these teams acquire and develop the depth of talent in their rosters that is necessary for success in a tournament such as this. Well-run, successful Major League Soccer teams like the Sounders should be able to have deep runs in Concacaf Champions League through the rest of the twenties and beyond.
But I do mean well-run, successful Major League Soccer teams like the Sounders. I will elaborate on that in part two, which will follow tomorrow.