LAS VEGAS, Nev. — A final is a final. Whether it’s the World Cup or an 8-year-old youth team tournament, you usually have to do a lot of work to get there. And once you’re there, nobody playing has ever decided it’s not worth the effort to lift the trophy. So whatever one thinks about the value what is now an almost obsolete version of the Leagues Cup, the Sounders were there, with a trophy to lift, and a legend to build.
In the end, unfortunately, the Sounders fell just short — though not for a lack of trying — fighting until the very end. With Seattle down 3-1 — a scoreline that probably would have flattered the winners — a deflected goal with just minutes left gave the Sounders some hope. But it’s the hope that usually gets you, and the Sounders ran out of time.
The 3-2 scoreline certainly didn’t figure after the scoreless first half, and it was probably always going to be a cagey affair to start. The Sounders have one of the stingiest defenses in MLS, and Club León is near the top of the table in Liga MX. So the stop-start nature of the game was hardly a surprise, though it wasn’t helped by some curious yellow card decisions by the center referee, who handed out four in the first half — three to the Sounders.
Whether that helped to open up the game in the second half because players were on the best behavior is tough to say. Either way, when things opened up they really did, thanks to some excellent interplay between Raúl Ruidíaz, Cristian Roldan and Jimmy Medranda. From that point on, the Sounders were on the front and looking to potentially push their advantage, until a defensive breakdown cost them the lead, and momentum.
Breakdowns could best describe what ultimately felled the Sounders in this one, as each of the goals were preventable, to say the least. But León capitalized on those opportunities, and thus walk away with the oddly shaped trophy which in some ways symbolizes what this tournament is: Ill-defined, but interesting in its own way. Both teams now go their separate ways to continue their regular seasons, but there’s no way around it: For the Sounders, it hurts. A lot.
Maybe it was a proper final after all.
Cristian Roldan shines
That Cristian Roldan’s contributions to the Sounders (and the United States national team) sometimes go overlooked is basically a given at this point, so it was fitting that on a high-profile stage, Roldan got to have a bit of the spotlight. Roldan was fantastic in this game, and his well-taken goal was a fitting reward for his efforts. Roldan was everywhere and nearly everything for the Sounders, putting his athleticism to good use as a target for the Sounders on goal kicks and clearances, winning nearly every 50/50 aerial duel to relieve pressure or even start attacking phases. He seemed to be in the middle of nearly every quality chance the Sounders created.
Too many missed opportunities
Unless the match is a blowout or otherwise uncompetitive, every team on the losing side laments the two or three opportunities that could have changed the course of the match. For the Sounders, it was surely around the 55-minutes mark when they were already up 1-0. They had León reeling. On the ropes. They were dictating the play and León was uncharacteristically sloppy. They had them. And in the 56th minute, the killer blow seemed at hand, with the ball at Raul Ruidiaz’s feet, and then at goal … but off the post. On another day, perhaps the soccer gods deigned to give the Sounders that extra inch that allows the ball to ricochet off the inside of the post for the 2-0 lead, and the Sounders romp to the title. But luck wasn’t a lady, that night.
Goals change games
The Ruidíaz shot off the post seemed to be the turning point in the game, as if the ball ringing off the post shook the cobwebs from León’s collective heads. León’s coach seemed to realize the match was at risk of getting away, and went to his bench to get a spark. His three-player line change was effective to say the least, as it immediately paid dividends, with Angel Mena bundling home a goal in the 61st minute that brought León into the ascendancy. The Sounders at that point had difficulty coping with the pressure, and eventually wilted under the bright Vegas lights.
Costly individual errors
Most coaches will tell you that they don’t much mind giving up the well-constructed goal, or moments of individual brilliance. To be sure, they don’t like them, but they can live with them. It’s the individual errors or preventable defensive breakdowns that really grate. So upon reflection, it will surely grind Schmetzer’s gears that the three goals conceded were of the latter variety, and egregiously so. Mena’s opener was borne of losing the ball in the midfield, but the cross to the weak side had him in oceans of space with no Sounder in the area despite six defenders in or around the penalty area, an uncharacteristic defensive lapse. The two goals that ultimately separated the sides were simple individual errors: Shane O’Neill needlessly going to ground inside the box, Xavier Arreaga caught in possession, and the Sounders summarily punished for both transgressions.
Leagues Cup was fun
Ultimately, Leagues Cup won’t ever be on the same level as other continental competitions across the ocean, and most MLS fans will never ascribe the same importance to it as the regular season or playoffs. And expanding the competition by adding more fixtures is something that MLS will surely have to address with its union. But as an event, it’s hard to argue it didn’t deliver an entertaining product in an over-the-top way. While asking the event to fill a 66,000-seat stadium on a weekday was never going to happen, 25,000 was certainly no embarrassment on a week’s notice, and the atmosphere was there to boot. And it’s Vegas, the land where over-the-top is a prerequisite. There are worse ways to spend a Wednesday, which may not be a ringing endorsement, but it gets a seal of approval just the same.