SEATTLE — Whatever one thinks of the Leagues Cup — glorified exhibition, shameless cash grab, corporate synergy run amok — there is a shiny trophy and a trip to Las Vegas on the line. And importantly for Seattle Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer, a chance for his side to test themselves against one of the historic Liga MX powers. Tigres, the five-time Liga MX champions and defending Concacaf Champions League title holders didn’t bring their “A” lineup to the match, but even their reduced side was filled with players who would start for MLS teams. And if a MLS decides not to put out a strong squad, well, things can get ugly.
For his part, Schmetzer’s Sounders were dealing with the tail end of an injury crisis that had seen them pick up only one point in their last three home games, relinquishing their grip atop the Supporters’ Shield and Western Conference. Thus, much of the talk leading up to the match centered on how Schmetzer would deal with a game that doesn’t count for anything in the standings, with a grueling road-trip less than a week away. Schmetzer answered that question when the lineups were released, putting out as strong of a lineup as possible given who was still unavailable (Nouhou, Stefan Frei) and not fully fit (Nico Lodeiro).
The Sounders rewarded their coach and the 17,000 fans in attendance with a comprehensive performance, sweeping aside Tigres 3-0. It’s scoreline which will certainly raise eyebrows on both sides of the border, no matter the competition. For the Sounders especially, it’s a moment to build on as they return to league play against their rivals to the south on Sunday.
Flash of potential
The Sounders injury woes have been well documented, from the frustration of dropped home points to the promise of youth on the road. At some point, however, the main players have to return to the stage. Slowly but surely, the Sounders have been getting healthier, even if the results have been shaky in the meantime. On Tuesday, with close to a full complement of players, the Sounders flashed some of their true potential, which was on display for parts of the early-season run before injuries took their toll. Unlike many MLS-Liga MX matches, the Sounders gave as good as they got, and by and large controlled the game. The Sounders were able to create myriad scoring chances and kept the possession numbers essentially even. It was a tantalizing taste of what the Sounders could be, particularly with a fully fit Lodeiro, and the potential returns of Frei and Nouhou at the end of the month.
A bit of the air was let out of the balloon in Lodeiro’s unexpected return against FC Dallas, due in no small part to conceding a late equalizer in that match. There were no such issues against Tigres, with the Sounders captain stretching out his legs for a season-high 25 minutes. Of course, it wasn’t going to be long before Lodeiro would begin to influence proceedings. In typically spectacular fashion, Lodeiro looped a shot from 30 yards out over a flailing Miguel Ortega to seal his return, and the Sounders' advancement in the tournament. Having only played about 35 minutes since returning — and about 60 all season — Lodeiro is far from full fitness. That should frighten just about every other team in MLS.
Shutting out any team in a competitive match is always a feather in the cap, even moreso a team with the firepower and resources of Tigres. The Sounders managed the match well, with the backline putting in one of their better performances of the season. Xavier Arreaga in particular had a strong match, stepping up to intercept and break up Tigres attacks, and using his incisive passing skill to unlock their defense. Yeimar Gomez Andrade’s passing wasn’t quite as accurate, but his physicality was key in helping to deal with Tigres’ dangerous attack. Even still, Tigres were quite dangerous on set pieces, forcing Stefan Cleveland into a few saves, and at least one quasi goal-line clearance. But beyond that, it was a team performance to help keep the shutout, with even the attackers tracking back to help defend.
The tables turn
One complaint from MLS in these continental competitions is that they are typically out of season when they begin, and thus a lack of fitness and game competition contributes to their undoing. Whether there is merit to that position — the gulf in roster spend may have more to do with it — Tigres got a taste of how the other half lives in that respect. Only three games into their season and without some of the top players, Tigres were outplayed and lacked the final quality to truly challenge the Sounders from open play. Leaving on the end of a 3-0 hiding, the notion that Liga MX sides can go on the road with reduced sides and walk over a mostly first-choice MLS team is a premise that no longer seems to hold.
The overriding characteristic of the Sounders under Schmetzer’s stewardship is to try to win every game they play with whatever lineup they can put out. While injuries and absences impact the strength of the lineup game to game, Schmetzer will do as much as he can with what he has. While some could point to the Austin match as an example of Schmetzer playing a bit fast and loose with that premise, Schmetzer would argue that the kids that played in that match were prepared for that game because the ethos of the team requires them to be ready. So those who may worry that the Sounders may have sacrificed future MLS playoff seeding for the results of a tournament whose longevity rivals a mildly amusing Twitter meme probably need not be concerned.