SEATTLE — It would be beyond hyperbolic to suggest the Seattle Sounders needed a resounding win against Motagua in any sort of literal sense. Especially in these early-round games, the name of the game is simply “advance”, and a win of any kind would have sent them through to the Concacaf Champions League quarterfinals.
Nicolás Lodeiro gave the Sounders all they needed when his bouncing ball through traffic wrong-footed the goalkeeper and struck the back of the net in the 33rd minute. When Cristian Roldan effectively put the match away shortly after halftime when he found himself all alone in front of goal — taking advantage of a slow-to-react defense on a Lodeiro free kick — you could almost feel the tension lift from the stands. That the Sounders hadn’t really won any style points up to then hardly mattered in the grand scheme, and I seriously doubt the complaints would have been particularly voluminous.
But boy did the Sounders do a lot more than that.
It wasn’t just that they won 5-0 — not only the biggest-ever blowout in their CCL history, but the largest margin of victory for a MLS team in the knockout rounds — it was how ruthless they looked all the way through the final whistle. There were five different goal-scorers, two of whom came off the bench, and three players picked up assists.
I asked if, like the fans, the players were carrying any of the weight from last year’s end into this year’s start and how this performance might relieve some of that burden.
“Certainly,” Roldan said after finishing with a goal and two assists in just 65 minutes. “But at the same time you want to manage expectations, because — much like last year when we had a great start to the season but ended on a low — it’s nice to see us score five goals and play the way we did, we still have a tough game against Nashville.”
It was a good reminder that the start of this season is particularly tricky. While MLS has historically tried to give teams in CCL a bit of a break with early-season byes, this year’s already condensed schedule made that difficult. As a result, the Sounders will end up playing eight games in the first month of the season, the next six of which will be played on short rest.
That also underscores the importance of the performance against Motagua. Thanks to those early goals, the Sounders were able to play most of the second half in cruise control. Jordan Morris came off in the 59th minute — after scoring his first goal in about 16 months — and Brian Schmetzer used all five of his subs before the 80th minute. The quality of play didn’t suffer at all. Kelyn Rowe scored just two minutes after entering the field, Leó Chú gave everyone a reminder why the Sounders were willing to pay a seven-figure transfer fee for him, and Sam Adeniran looked like the kind of change-of-pace option this team often seems to lack.
The match wasn’t without flaws. The Sounders still seem to be struggling a bit with set-piece defense and they dodged a significant bullet when Motagua missed an open back-post header early in the first half. That Raúl Ruidíaz was pulled at halftime due to hamstring tightness is an ongoing concern, but he was at least replaced by João Paulo, who looked every bit like the player who put together a stealth MVP campaign last season.
Those concerns aside, this game had a palate-cleansing effect. The five goals were more than the Sounders had scored in their previous eight competitive matches combined, a stretch that saw the Sounders limp into the 2021 playoffs, suffer their earliest-ever exit and then play this same Motagua team to a scoreless draw on the road.
The next three weeks will undeniably be challenging. The Sounders will likely need to rotate virtually every position at some point. But we now have actual evidence that Lodeiro still has elite capacity, that Morris is sharpening those round edges, and another data point suggesting Obed Vargas isn’t some one-hit wonder. At least for one day, the Sounders looked every bit like a team capable of making good on the hype surrounding them. It’s tough to ask for much more heading into the season.