Coming into the second leg of the Concacaf Champions League quarterfinal with Club León, the Seattle Sounders knew they were going to be on their heels for much of the match. That’s just how it goes. Perhaps someday the dynamic will change, and to some degree it has. But when MLS teams go to Mexico, bad things usually happen. That’s especially true when the second leg is in Mexico.
Just a day ago, the New England Revolution found that out in particularly humiliating fashion, blowing a three-goal lead as they crashed out of the tournament in penalties. As they say in these situations: no lead is safe.
Still, the Sounders are experienced in this tournament and do have the distinction of having been one of the few sides to take a victory on hostile Mexican turf, a decade ago that may have been. And as the match ticked down to halftime, things were going about as well as could be expected. León had the lion’s share of the possession, but the experienced and stout Sounders defense bent but didn’t break.
And suddenly, as the teams went into the locker room for the break, it was effectively all over.
Not officially, of course, as teams are required to play the full 90, but rare is the game where a team succeeds in scoring five second-half goals. But that’s what León needed after Fredy Montero clinically converted a penalty, won after some nifty footwork from João Paulo drew a rash challenge. Once the referee pointed to the spot, the Sounders had essentially booked their place into the semi-finals, and the only question was when they needed to schedule their flight to New York.
Next man up
It’s tough to say what was the most impressive part of the Sounders’ performance, but it might have been coach Brian Schmetzer once again utilizing the depth of his roster, on the road in the most hostile of environments. Or perhaps it was that depth repaying that trust by gutting out a result. With Raúl Ruidíaz and Yeimar Gomez Andrade unavailable with injuries, and Nico Lodeiro in ‘Health and Safety Protocols,’ it was up to the likes of Kelyn Rowe and Jackson Ragen to once again put in a shift. Rowe gamely filled in as a left wingback, and Ragen did even more than that in his second-ever start.
Speaking of admirable fill-ins, the late-career resurgence of Fredy Montero continues into its second year. There was some question if Montero would return to the Sounders after overperforming his deal at least seven-fold in 2021. But the sides were able to make it work, and Montero is already on his way to providing the Sounders with another great value-add. With the chance to put the series on ice, Montero was just that from the penalty spot, dispatching his spot kick — and León — with deadly accuracy.
Leadership in the back
Late game concession aside, it would be remiss not to give goalkeeper Stefan Frei some credit for helping to keep León at bay for most of the match. Though Montero’s penalty removed most of the doubt from the match, Frei kept things from ever getting interesting with some impressive saves throughout the match. By the time Leon finally broke through in extra time, it was well too late. That it took them so long was in no small part due to Frei’s usual more-than-capable goalkeeping. Frei finished with seven saves after allowing his first goal in four CCL games this year.
The goal did take a little of the luster out of proceedings, as the Sounders were minutes away from grabbing another signature win for the team — and league — on the road in Mexico. When you’re that close, of course you want to finish it out. It would explain the slightly business-like approach to the post-game presser, where Cristian Roldan noted they hadn’t won anything yet, and Schmetzer lamented how close they were to the victory. Not to say they weren’t pleased with the result, but both player and coach noted that ultimately, they haven’t won anything yet.
Broldans come to play
Speaking of the Roldans, both showed why they have become fixtures with their respective national teams, with Alex in particular putting in an impressive shift from his right wingback position. That he was able to more than hold his own against the León attack speaks to how far he’s come since being cut by the Sounders after the 2019 season. For his part, Cristian was as usual all over the field, whether it was providing support in attack or defense. It’s hard to overstate what he means to the team, and easy to guess where’d they be without him.