I should qualify that Seattle is a unique Major League Soccer team. To quote the rhetorician Scott Steiner – “They’re a genetic freak, and they’re not normal.”
There’s financial investment in their club that many other clubs haven’t matched, and even those that do match them haven’t necessarily been able to turn it into sustained success. They’ve had success in building their roster through seemingly every possible manner that one can build – Two Designated Players in Lodeiro and Ruidiaz that have stuck around for the long haul, players like Arreaga and Joao Paulo who they’ve been able to negotiate down from Designated Player money while keeping them on the roster, homegrown talent like Jordan Morris and obed Vargas, players scouted from outside of the United States like Nouhou Tolo, drafted talent like the Roldan brothers – They even managed to succeed under the new free agency regulations last year when they signed Albert Rusnak from Salt Lake.
Moreso than that, Seattle has a cultural cachet unmatched by nearly anybody else in American Soccer. Very few soccer franchises in the United States have been around as long as Seattle has, one of either three or four (depending upon how you connect the current franchise in Minnesota to the original Thunder) current MLS teams older than the league itself, and while I cannot speak from experience, only from hearsay, very few others have the presence within their city’s sports hierarchy that the Sounders hold – and that’s worked out to their advantage. Famously (or infamously) Jordan Morris was between signing either for Seattle or Germany’s Werder Bremen in 2016 and chose Seattle because it meant something to him emotionally to be a Sounder. I think that you can look at depth pieces as exemplary of this, too – like Kellyn Rowe, originally from Seattle, who came back home in 2021 and played significant minutes in the CCL final, and Fredy Montero, a club veteran who returned home to Seattle in 2021 after seven seasons playing elsewhere (and has taken on a relatively low salary in doing so). Having that sort of cachet has helped them attract and hold on to good players, which has led to a maintained level of success within the league. They’ve built a winning culture that definitely helped them in this tournament.
For instance – when they met Leon in the second round, they met a team they’d competed with and nearly defeated in the 2021 Leagues Cup. I have to believe that the experience of getting so close in 2021 helped their mentality in 2022. They’re well-versed with playing Mexican teams in general, as well: Since their first Concacaf appearance under Brian Schmetzer, Seattle has played six knockout round ties against Mexican opposition, winning four and losing two (Beating Tigres and Santos Laguna in the 2021 Leagues Cup plus Club Leon and Pumas in 2022, losing to Chivas in the 2018 CCL and Leon in the 2021 Leagues Cup Final), and when broken into the nine individual matches played, they’ve had five wins, two draws, and two losses. No other MLS team has won that many competitive matches against Liga MX competition in that time frame. The only other club to have played that many competitive matches against Liga MX teams is Toronto, who has been 3-3 in competitive series with four wins, two draws, and five losses broken into the eleven individual matches they’ve played (I am counting the 2019 Campeones Cup as a competition, for the record). Seattle had the experience to keep themselves from getting intimidated by the Liga MX competition they faced in this Champions League run, and as a result they could focus on just playing great, dominant soccer, which they did to great effect in this run.
And, for the record, since I’ve done the research – Other MLS teams who have played multiple rounds against Liga MX Competition since 2018 are:
Atlanta – 1-1 in 2 rounds played, 2-1 in 3 total matches
LAFC – 3-1 in 4 rounds played, 3-0-2 in 5 total matches
RBNY – 1-2 in 3 rounds played, 2-1-3 in 6 total matches
NYCFC – 0-2 in 2 rounds played, 0-0-3 in 3 total matches
SKC – 1-2 in 3 rounds played, 2-0-3 in 3 total matches
Columbus – 1-1 in 2 rounds played, 1-1-1 in 3 total matches
This culture extends outside of what’s within the club. Seattle set a Concacaf Champions League record for attendance on Wednesday, with 68,000+ fans in attendance (a chunk of whom were Pumas supporters, though it appeared like the fans in green well outnumbered the fans in gold). Only two other teams in MLS (Atlanta and Charlotte) have ever drawn more than that to a standalone competitive match, which are the only two clubs to currently reside in facilities which can hold that many spectators. They are unique in the manner with which they are treated as a professional sports team in their market, on even footing with the Seahawks and Mariners in a way that very few other MLS teams can say that they are.
This is obviously a subjective statement, but one barometer I use to judge cultural impact within a city is whether an MLS Cup winner ends up hosting a championship parade in their city to celebrate. The Sounders did in 2016 and ‘19. Portland did in 2015, Toronto did in 2017, Atlanta did in 2018 as well. New York City FC did not host a parade in 2021 and the LA Galaxy did not in 2014. I don’t read very far into the fact that Columbus didn’t host one in 2020 for obvious reasons.
That supporter culture was built over time. This iteration of the Seattle Sounders (and yes, I know, whoever wants to jump in and remind me: Technically this iteration of the Seattle Sounders started play in 2009 when they joined MLS – but UNESCO declared this website a NO PEDANTRY ZONE long ago, and I’m about to make a more tenuous connection between a club and its predecessors in the next parenthetical) is currently playing in its twenty-ninth season. They are one of the only clubs in Major League Soccer whose continuous existence predates the league itself (The others being Montreal, who joined the APSL a year before Seattle in 1993, Vancouver, whose existence can be traced back to the Vancouver ‘86ers that joined the Canadian Soccer League in 1986, and they even trace it as far back as the original NASL Whitecaps, who started in the NASL in 1974. If you subscribe to that school of thought which connects these Whitecaps to the original Whitecaps via the ‘86ers continuity with the last iteration of the NASL Whitecaps from 1984… you also can also easily make the leap to consider Minnesota United FC to be older than MLS, due to the continuity the 2010 NSC Minnesota Stars kept with the 2009 Minnesota Thunder team a franchise that was originally founded in 1990. I do make that leap, just for fun, and I invite you to do so as well.)
Sorry about that. Anyway – In those twenty-nine seasons, the Sounders have won fifteen trophies of some sort: Four A-League/USL postseason championships, three A-League/USL regular season championships, four US Open Cups, two MLS Cups, an MLS Supporter’s Shield, and now the Concacaf Champions League. The Sounders could credibly claim to be the most successful franchise in the American major team sports leagues, especially if we just consider their time in MLS since 2009, during which they’ve won eight major trophies. Nearly nobody else has been that good, and the only MLS club with more trophies won in that time, Toronto FC (9), won seven of them through the Canadian Championship, a tournament in which they routinely only had to win two matches to earn the trophy for the bulk of that period.
They never missed the playoffs in their first thirteen seasons in MLS (though they’ll have to make up the points they’ve dropped early in this season in order to do it again this year). The only others who have come close even to that in that time frame are the New York Red Bulls (12, with 3 Supporters Shields to show for them) and Sporting Kansas City (9, with one MLS Cup and 3 US Open Cups to show for them). Some post-2009 expansion clubs have come relatively close to matching that success in a shorter timeframe (NYCFC, Atlanta, and LAFC, for example), but time will tell if they can sustain that. You need time and history to build that up, and a lot of effort, good decisions, and a strong culture to sustain it once its been built..
Not many other MLS teams have that sort of culture, where players will turn down potentially better career and financial opportunities to be there. Not many MLS clubs put themselves in the position to get experience against Mexican competition the way that Seattle has. Not many MLS clubs could attract 68,000 people to a match. Not many MLS clubs have the length of history that Seattle’s had, let alone the success within. The combination of those aspects have made Seattle a uniquely successful club in MLS, and set them up to dominate in CCL in 2022. They are a model franchise in MLS, and future success for Major League Soccer teams in Concacaf will rely on those teams being able to succeed in those same senses.
The third and final part of the Sounder triptych, discussing how other Major League Soccer teams could emulate the Sounders’ model in the future