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Competing for Leagues Cup is part of becoming a ‘big’ club

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Sounders are embracing the challenge of winning their first international tournament.

Leagues Cup 2021: Semifinals - Santos Laguna v Seattle Sounders FC Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images

The first few seasons of Stefan Frei’s MLS career were a bit of a mixed bag. Although he was generally considered a good goalkeeper, he had been stuck playing for very bad Toronto FC teams. Even worse, he had effectively lost his last two seasons to injury.

Out of contract following the 2013 season, the Switzerland-born Frei had effectively made up his mind that he’d try his luck in Europe. That all changed when he got a call from the Seattle Sounders while he was on his honeymoon.

“The fact that this is a club that has big ambitions, that has always been fighting for trophies was one of the main reasons I wanted to come here,” Frei said earlier this week. “I’ve been trying to tell this to some of the young guys who haven’t been here as long, you see this more in this league that teams are getting up for it against us. They see us as the measuring stick, as the team they want to compete against. You saw when Salt Lake won against us — at their place 1-0 — what it meant to them. It means you have a high standard and you want to be part of a team that is gunning for trophies.”

Now in his eighth season with the Sounders, Frei has won a U.S. Open Cup, a Supporters’ Shield, played in four MLS Cup finals and won two of them. The one thing he and the Sounders have not won is an international cup final, something I think is imperative to making good on these shared ambitions.

They’ll get their first chance to change that tonight against Liga MX’s Club León.

There are certainly valid criticisms of the Leagues Cup and no one is propping it up as the equivalent of winning Concacaf Champions League, but winning it would still represent a significant achievement that is arguably unmatched in MLS since the LA Galaxy won the Concacaf Champions Cup more than two decades ago.

The Sounders are fully embracing that challenge

“There are tournaments that are created, but there are very few opportunities to win silverware and this is one of them,” Frei said. “We didn’t come to the training pitch and create our own trophy, this is one everyone knew about with good opponents and it’s an opportunity.

“I think as a team but also as an individual player, the legacy you leave behind will be judged on the silverware you brought throughout your tenure. This is an opportunity to put another one in the trophy case ... These come few and far between and you have to treat it as such.”

To get to this point, the Sounders have already had to defeat two massive opponents. Tigres UANL have probably been the best team in North America over the past decade, winning five Liga MX titles, three Campeon de Campeones Cups and claiming the most recent CCL crown. Santos Laguna have won three Liga MX titles in the same timeframe.

León can’t quite boast the same resume, but they have so far been the class of this tournament — they’ve won their two games by a collective score of 8-1 — are less than a year removed from winning a Liga MX title and currently sit fourth in the table.

Facing down opponents like this is exactly the kind of challenge Schmetzer wants the Sounders to embrace.

“I don’t think we’ve ducked any game since we started in ‘09 and certainly not since 2002 when I started,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer said earlier this week. “I think this franchise has always been successful. The pressure of being a ‘big’ club is a bit vague. What is it? Is it payroll? Is it money? Is it stadium? Who knows what that is?”

At various times this year, Schmetzer has talked about the mentality of heading into every game believing the Sounders can win as a key component of the franchise’s DNA. It’s not allowing his players to believe that some games are just to be managed with the hope of getting a point.

It obviously doesn’t work every time — like Saturday’s game against Real Salt Lake — but setting that standard is key to keeping the Sounders accountable to themselves. “The pressure we put on ourselves to be successful, that’s what makes us a big club,” Schmetzer continued. “Not being afraid to go play against Tigres or Santos or Leon or Philly or LAFC or RSL.

“At some point we’re going to have a positive result at RSL because we’re not afraid. We don’t go there going ‘ah geez it’s time to go to RSL again’ No, ‘it’s fuck it, we’re going to do it this time.’ It’s always the internal pressure that makes us a big club because we want to win everything.”

When Frei joined the Sounders, it was a commentary on both his and the team’s ambition. Ever since then, they’ve said all the right things about being a “big” club. By MLS-specific standards, I think that’s true. But if they are to move beyond that qualified status into something bigger, they need to win international competitions like this one. Almost as much as the trophy itself, those are the stakes tonight.