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Sounders beat Santos Laguna 1-0 on a 93rd minute goal to advance to the Leagues Cup final

Max Aquino

SEATTLE — The Leagues Cup is one of Major League Soccer’s latest attempts to forge a closer relationship with Liga MX, and close observers of the league could fairly argue this competition is more overkill than revolutionary. After all, the two leagues already meet in Concacaf Champions League. And the Campeones Cup (another recent addition). And the All-Star Game (yet another recent addition). But in MLS’s seemingly eternal quest for relevance and credibility — particularly with Latin-American fans — the more chances to test themselves against Liga MX, the better.

But given MLS’s spotty record in head-to-head competitions with their neighbors to the south — MLS is now 28-65-23 combined in CCL and Leagues Cup — the road to relevance has been paved with potholes, and the Sounders are no stranger to trying to maneuver them. Santos Laguna, the Sounders’ opponent in the Leagues Cup Semifinal, has been the cause of more than one wreck, crashing Seattle out of CCL in both 2012 and 2013, the former in rather humbling fashion.

Still, those games have mostly faded from memory, with only Fredy Montero around from the 2012 thrashing. Even he was gone from the return matches a year later, leaving head coach Brian Schmetzer as the most prominent member of the Sounders to experience both series. With essentially new rosters for both sides, it was a chance to write some new history.

And history they did write, eventually.

With 90 minutes of action unable to separate the sides and the crapshoot that is penalties looming, the Sounders hit their number with their last toss of the dice, using a lightning quick counter to send Raúl Ruidíaz through on goal with a little help from the newest Sounder to become the first MLS team to advance to a Leagues Cup final. They’ll get a chance to make some even bigger history next week.

Here’s five of the things we loved from the match:

Sounders Dos; Liga MX Cero

It would be a bit unfair to call the Sounders’ previous matchups with Liga MX one-sided. After all, the Sounders were one of the first MLS team to defeat a Liga MX side on the road in Champions’ League play back in 2011 and their record of 6-8-2 is pretty respectable by the standards of MLS. Still, these two wins suggest the gap is shrinking. Yes, both victories have been at home — their record in Seattle versus Liga MX since 2016 is a robust 3-0-1 — but that just means that when the Sounders face either Leon or Pumas on neutral ground, they’ll have the chance to knock down that talking point too.

Ruidiaz still rules Liga MX

When the Sounders originally acquired Ruidíaz from Morelia in 2018, it was a bit of a head-scratcher. Why was Morelia selling off the league’s two-time golden boot winner? Whatever the reason (and it’s usually financial), the Sounders have gotten just about all the could have asked for from the purchase. From the moment he arrived in Seattle, Ruidíaz has produced, ultimately helping the Sounders to an MLS Cup victory in 2019 and a return visit in 2020. Of course, all he’s done this year is lead the MLS Golden Boot race for much of the season. And Tuesday evening, in the most tense of situation, Ruidíaz did what he does best. The Peruvian international seems made for these moments, and once again he paid off the Sounders bet.

Leo Chu shows promise

Ruidíaz[‘s game-winner came off a nicely weighted pass from another high-profile addition: Léo Chú, who made his long-awaited debut late in the Leagues Cup match. It wasn’t quite the fairytale debut as Chu was a bit rough edges — as Schmetzer was quick to point out after the match. However, the potential was there when it was needed most, and nobody can take away the contribution that sent the Sounders to the final. So maybe it was a fairytale ending after all.

Sounders learn about pressure

That the Sounders played Santos to a stalemate for 90+ minutes wasn’t a surprise — especially at home. Still, there were some lessons to take away for the Sounders. Particularly, the intensity and speed of play. Both Cristian Roldan and Schmetzer remarked that the intensity of the match was of a level not always seen in MLS. It was on display as the Sounders seemingly always had a Santos player on them, no matter how quickly they passed or how fast their interchanges were. Roldan also thought they struggled to match the intensity of the visitors, particularly at points in the second half when Santos had them pinned in their defensive half. It’s a lesson easier to take when you win the game, but a lesson all the same.

Sounders living the good life

First place in the Western Conference. Another final. A trip to Sin City. And a nice paycheck to boot. What’s not to like if you’re the Seattle Sounders? The mood post-game was exemplified by Schmetzer, who could scarcely keep the smile off his face as he entered the press conference. So, while the Leagues’ Cup might not be on the same pedestal as other competitions, it’s still a chance to win a trophy, and based on the intensity of the game — and the anger and elation after Ruidiaz score — the players treated it as such. So Schmetzer surely feels vindicated in playing as close to a first-choice lineup as he could given injuries and fitness issues. As he often says, the Sounders will always go for the win in any competition they play in, because that’s the ethos of the club. It’s what they do.