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Postgame Pontifications: History slips through Sounders’ fingers

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A Leagues Cup win was a chance to plant Sounders’ flag.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

For 60 or so minutes, the Seattle Sounders looked like a team ready to make history in the Leagues Cup final. After a relatively even first half, they had grabbed the opener shortly after halftime and were furiously pressing for a second. During the first 15 minutes of the second half, the Sounders looked to be doing to Club León what we’ve all grown accustomed to Liga MX teams doing to MLS opponents over the years: finding a sliver of advantage and then busting it wide open.

Only the second goal didn’t come.

Despite two particularly glorious opportunities on counter-attacks — a breakaway by Raúl Ruidíaz in which he missed a wide open Cristian Roldan and a Roldan cross that Ruidíaz crashed off the near post — the Sounders still found themselves clinging to a 1-0 lead with 30 minutes remaining.

Instead of seizing control of the match and flipping the decades-old script, the Sounders found themselves filling the tired role of overwhelmed antagonist.

León coach Ariel Holan made a trio of subs in the 60th minute — one of whom had the assist on the equalizer, another who scored the eventual game-winner — and never really looked back, ultimately winning the match, 3-2. It marked the eighth time since 2007 that Liga MX and MLS clubs have faced off in an international cup final. In all eight of those matches, the Liga MX team has come out on top.

Underscoring the frustration and highlighting the “Lucy swiping the ball from Charlie Brown” aspect, is that it was also the seventh time the Liga MX team won by just one goal or in penalties. The eighth meeting featured the MLS team leading with 40 minutes to go.

“I still sense when we face Mexican sides how aggressive and hungry they are,” Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei said following Wednesday’s game. “That’s still a difference from our league. That would be something that would be good to absorb into our own squad, that arrogance. It’s good experience and hopefully, we can learn something. You always want to play against good squads to improve yourselves.”

As much as Frei talked about using this as a learning opportunity, he was also keenly aware that the Sounders missed a chance to become the first MLS team to beat a Liga MX opponent in a cup final. Slanted as the Leagues Cup format is toward MLS teams — they’re in midseason form playing opponents who are just starting out and on foreign soil — the Sounders could have planted the proverbial flag. Instead, Frei found himself on the losing end of a cup final for the second time in less than a year and the third time in five tries.

“It was an opportunity to make history,” Frei said. “I was fortunate enough to hoist our first MLS Cup. Winning trophies is everything, but winning the first one is extra special because it will only be done once. It was an opportunity.

“We’re really doing well to find ourselves in finals, but it really sucks to lose in finals, to come so far and fall just short. It’s good to have those high standards, but no one ever remembers the teams that got to finals only the ones that won them.”

The big difference in this one seemed to be in the two sides’ respective depth. While the Sounders starters were more than capable of standing toe-to-toe with León’s, the 60th minute changes clearly slanted the field. It’s notable that the Sounders’ first change didn’t come until the 68th minute and the first genuine tactical change came nearly 10 minutes after that, when Will Bruin replaced Fredy Montero.

Tactical decisions aside, what will likely eat at the Sounders even more is that all three goals they allowed were through uncharacteristic defensive breakdowns.

The first came when Elias Hernandez was allowed to dribble past several defenders and put in a cross that found Angel Mena wide open at the far post, despite the Sounders having six defenders in the area. The second goal was a penalty that resulted from Shane O’Neill’s poorly timed challenge on Mena, who was dribbling toward the endline while the Sounders had eight players defending four attackers. The final goal was the product of Xavier Arreaga possibly not being prepared for some well-timed pressure as Mena took the ball off him, setting up Emanuel Gigliotti’s goal off a rebound.

Asked to reflect in the immediate aftermath, Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer wasn’t quite ready to go there.

“At 1-0 we’re a good enough defensive team to close the game out,” he said. “I never micromanage the decisions the players make on field. It wasn’t anything specific.”

The good news, if you choose to take that angle, is that the Sounders still have plenty to play for. There’s a massive game on Sunday that will go a long way toward deciding who finishes first in the Western Conference. The best teams aren’t just defined by how often they win big games, but by how quickly they can move on from losing them.

“We have to [move on], that’s life,” Schmetzer said. “The guys are gutted in the locker room. They’re tired, they’re emotionally drained, but they’re a resilient group. We understand where Sporting KC is in the standings. We’ll try to push past it, we still have some very important business to take care of.”