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Postgame Pontifications: It’s OK to let yourself enjoy Leagues Cup

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with faking it until you make it.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

SEATTLE — There’s a saying that can be applied in all sorts of situations: “Fake it till you make it.” The idea being that sometimes you may not want to do something, but you do it anyway because you know you should, and eventually it starts to happen naturally. I suspect we’re seeing that manifest within the Seattle Sounders around Leagues Cup.

The faking it part — if it happened at all — came long ago when the Sounders first found out they were participating. Whether they really wanted to play in the tournament or not, they made a collective decision to act as though they did. (Which was surely helped by the prize pool reported to be over $1 million for the winning roster.) Their words have been followed by actions at every step.

Just like he did in the quarterfinals against UANL Tigres, head coach Brian Schmetzer rolled out a veteran-heavy lineup that was something very close to his first-choice squad in Tuesday’s semifinal against Santos Laguna. And just like that earlier game, the Sounders’ effort was clearly present.

When Raúl Ruidíaz put away his own rebound from a 93rd minute breakaway, his celebration was as real as it gets. He jumped the ad boards, embraced his teammates, exchanged hugs with fans and was nearly yellow-carded for taking so long to get back on the field. There may have only been about 12,000 fans in attendance, but they were celebrating as you’d expect after watching their team clinch a spot in their fifth cup final in five years.

The emotion, the effort, the fun we all had watching it — this was all real, I have no doubt. If the Sounders end up lifting that oddly-shaped trophy following next week’s Las Vegas final? I’m sure they’ll celebrate it just like they would any other midseason cup. As they should. Anyone participating in all this has “made it.”

Still, I’m sympathetic to the idea — presented to me by Jason Davis when I appeared on his United States of Soccer Sirius Radio show — that it’s all a bit of “results-based enjoyment.”

I can’t honestly say that I’d have been super bummed out if that rebound hadn’t fallen to Ruidíaz and the Sounders had gone on to lose in penalties. I don’t think I’d have watched the final longingly wondering what could have been. As much fun as winning is, it is cheapened somewhat by the lack of stakes.

This is where my “fake it” sentiment comes into focus.

I think we probably could have said the same thing about those early U.S. Open Cup runs, too. You might remember that only about 17,000 people showed up to 2009 final in Washington, D.C. You might also remember some fans giving the Sounders a hard time for celebrating the win like they did. It was the same way when the Sounders hosted and won the next two finals, both played in front of record-breaking crowds. We were often accused of being the only fans who really cared about the Open Cup and that was only because it was the trophy we were winning at the time.

When the Sounders went to their fourth straight final in 2012, the tune had started to change. The crowd at Sporting KC’s relatively new stadium that night was absolutely electric. The emotional edge around that game was just as sharp as any of the four MLS Cup finals in which the Sounders have now participated. The disappointment of that loss to Sporting KC STILL bugs me, certainly more than last year’s loss to the Columbus Crew or the 2017 capitulation to Toronto FC. The stakes had become very real.

The Leagues Cup is not at that point, yet. There’s a chance it never will and there will likely always be detractors who say, “it doesn’t matter.”

For now, they might have a valid argument. This is a new tournament with no history and of dubious sporting value. There’s some value in that, too. Leagues Cup is something new, something that has not yet become whatever it will be. For now, it’s a different kind of challenge that the Sounders are willing to embrace.

Tuesday’s match featured two teams who clearly wanted to win. The Sounders were the better team in the first half, but Santos Laguna was equally as good for most of the second. I was frankly blown away at Los Guerreros’ defensive speed and how easily they choked off seemingly promising Sounders counter-attacks. Even before Ruidíaz’s game-winner, it had been an entertaining match.

There is an understandable concern among some that this all comes at a price. That the Sounders are potentially sacrificing their pursuit of the “real” goal — MLS Cup — in order to achieve these cheap thrills. It should probably be noted that they’ve managed all of this well so far, going 4-1-0 in the five league games since Leagues Cup started with the one loss coming on full rest and ahead of a long break. I’d also argue that big clubs don’t duck big challenges. That the Sounders have embraced this tournament that pits them against teams with even more impressive pedigrees and bigger budgets speaks to their own ambitions.

From their start in MLS, the Sounders have always done that. It’s how they ended up being the team that took the Open Cup seriously enough to make four straight finals. It’s why they keep insisting winning Concacaf Champions League is their biggest goal. Learning to at least appreciate Leagues Cup is just another natural extension of being a Sounders fan. Being the first MLS team to win it would only be fitting.

In a sense, “faking it” is just allowing yourself to be open-minded to the possibility that you might enjoy something. If you found yourself screaming for joy alongside the Sounders, congratulations, you’ve already “made it.”

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