SEATTLE — Much of the discussion surrounding the lead-up to Tuesday’s Leagues Cup match centered around its worthiness. A common refrain went something like this: Why are the Seattle Sounders being forced to play a midweek game against a more talented opponent in a made-up tournament that feels like a money grab? Wouldn’t they be better off simply resting and focusing on chasing the Supporters’ Shield and positioning themselves for a potential MLS Cup run?
From the very beginning, Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer rejected that thinking. He insisted all along that he would be playing his starters; that testing his players against a high-quality opponent was important in itself; that the Sounders are all about winning trophies and this was an opportunity to win another.
“We wanted to win every single game, every trophy,” Schmetzer said in the postgame press conference. “That’s what I believe makes us special.”
Agree or disagree with Schmetzer’s thinking, he put actions behind those words. The lineup he rolled out against Liga MX giants and defending Concacaf Champions League winners Tigres UANL was as strong as any he’d used all year. Veterans occupied all 11 starting spots and every minute was given to a player who the Sounders fully expect to be key contributors down the stretch.
That the Sounders also controlled the match — cruising to a 3-0 win that goes down in history as one of the most lopsided victories ever for an MLS team over a Liga MX opponent — suggests Schmetzer’s message was well received.
To some degree, this is exactly the kind of thing that attracts players like Lodeiro and Raúl Ruidíaz to the Sounders. As much as they are clearly driven by winning the league, they are also obviously intrigued by the prospect of performing on the international stage. The Leagues Cup is very much not the same as representing their countries’ national team — and is even a cut below Concacaf Champions League — but facing off against a decorated time like Tigres clearly means something to them.
“We know we represent the best team in MLS, and we need to play like a final because we represent a big club, big fans,” Nicolás Lodeiro said. “Tonight, we played like it was a final. We are excited to play a big club from Mexico. When we play for Sounders, we play to win every game.”
And make no mistake, Tigres was a formidable opponent. Even missing some of their biggest stars, the lineup Miguel Herrera put out would have been top to bottom as good or better than any in MLS. The collective market value of their starters was nearly $40 million and the median starter was valued at about $2.2M, according to Transfermarkt. Their lineup included a World Cup winner, players with UEFA Champions League experience and a ton of Liga MX veterans.
The Sounders starters, by comparison, were valued at about $26M with a median value of $1.32M.
With so much talent on the field, it should hardly be surprising that the match was entertaining. The Sounders controlled much of the first half, with Ruidíaz converting a well-deserved penalty to send them into the locker room up 1-0. That seemed to awaken something in Tigres, as they came out with much more energy. The crowd, which was a bit late arriving but ultimately numbered a respectable 17,077 that many pockets of Tigres yellow, seemed to sense that and responded.
But after weathering a bit of a charge, the Sounders grabbed an insurance goal when Fredy Montero tucked away a flicked Cristian Roldan header off a João Paulo corner kick and then put the match away when Lodeiro fired in a shot from nearly 30 yards out.
The Leagues Cup is still very new. This is only the second year the tournament has been contested, and it very clearly lacks relevance for a lot of people. Ticket sales were slow, the buzz was almost non-existent and up until kickoff there were a lot of reasons to be skeptical. But from the moment the lineups were announced, I think a lot of those concerns began to fade away for me. The teams were taking it seriously and I dare anyone who watched to say it wasn’t at least fun.
My suspicion is that over time, fans will grow to appreciate — if not necessarily love — the Leagues Cup. The opportunity to play Liga MX opponents will likely always be intriguing, even if it’s not in CCL.
The Sounders will next play the winner of Orlando City-Santos Laguna. It seems pretty obvious to me that if Orlando City wins, interest in the semifinals will likely crater. But if it’s Santos Laguna, I would not at all be surprised if attendance is closer to 25,000 and there’s some genuine excitement around the game. The prospect of playing another storied Liga MX team — especially one against whom the Sounders have some history — is at least a good diversion from what can sometimes feel like a monotonous stream of playing the same dozen teams repeatedly over the past couple years. If the Sounders can get to the final, at that point I don’t think I’ll care who they need to play in order to win another piece of silverware.
I’m not going to try to convince anyone that this is an “important” tournament or that there’s some undeniable sporting merit. I don’t know if I’ll feel the same way about future Leagues Cups when there’s U.S. Open Cup on the schedule and I’d caution against expanding this tournament beyond what it is now. But I liked what I saw on Tuesday and am happy to see where this ride ends. Right now, that’s enough for me.