This is the 14th season the Seattle Sounders have played in MLS. In fully half of those seasons, they’ve qualified for Concacaf Champions League. That’s tied for both the most appearances and best qualification percentage of any team in MLS.
Still, I have a feeling there’s a good deal of unfamiliarity with this continent’s equivalent to the more famous UEFA Champions League. With the Sounders as close as ever to their first finals appearance in this tournament, now seems like as good a time as any to do a quick refresher:
How close are the Sounders to the final?
Wednesday is the first of two semifinal legs against fellow MLS team New York City FC. This leg is being played at Lumen Field and the return leg is on April 13 at Red Bull Arena in New Jersey. This is actually the second time the Sounders have advanced this far, but the first since they ultimately fell to Santos Laguna in the 2012-13 version of the tournament.
Hold up, did you say the game is at Red Bull Arena?
I did, and yes that’s not where NYCFC normally play their games. As you probably know, NYCFC’s MLS games have primarily been played at Yankee Stadium. But the baseball stadium was rejected as a suitable facility by Concacaf, forcing NYCFC to find alternate homes. They played their Round of 16 “home” leg at LAFC’s Banc of California Stadium and their quarterfinal home leg was played in Hartford, Connecticut. So, in a sense, this is actually a pretty massive improvement for them.
That didn’t stop the Sounders from having some fun with it:
Why do they get to host the second leg?
While the first two rounds of the tournament were determined by the draw, the order of the semifinals and finals is set by points gained in previous rounds. The Sounders have gone 2-0-2 for the equivalent of 8 points, while NYCFC went 3-1-0, which is the equivalent of 9 points.
How much does the order of games matter?
Not much, to be honest, and that’s especially true since the semifinals go straight to a penalty shootout if everything including away goals is even after 180 minutes of regulation play. It might make a bit more difference in the finals, however, as there is the potential for extra time. The same calculus will be used to determine the hosting order next round.
How good are NYCFC?
They’re the reigning MLS Cup winners and have consistently been one of the top regular-season teams in the league since 2016. They’re currently led by Valentin Castellanos, the reigning MLS Golden Boot winner, who has four goals and three assists in nine competitive matches this year. They also have 19-year-old Brazilian winger Talles Magno, who already has four goals and an assist this year, as well as Maxi Moralez, one of the league’s top goal producers over the past six seasons. Defensively they’re pretty stout as well, posting the second-lowest Expected Goals Against in the league last year behind goalkeeper Sean Johnson.
How did they get here?
NYCFC’s regular-season performance so far this year leaves a bit to be desired — they’re 1-3-1 — but they have clearly focused their energy on CCL play. NYCFC easily handled Costa Rica side Santos de Guapiles by an aggregate score of 6-0 in the Round of 16, but had a lot more trouble in the quarterfinals, where they needed the away-goals tiebreaker in order to advance after Guatemala’s Comunicaciones tied them 5-5 on aggregate.
How did the Sounders get here?
The Sounders beat Honduras’ FC Motagua 5-0 in the Round of 16 and then beat Liga MX’s Club León, 4-1.
Does either team have a scheduling advantage?
Not really. Both the Sounders and NYCFC played on Saturday and were able to reschedule league matches that would have been played between the two legs. They’ll also both be required to effectively travel across the country prior to each leg. The Sounders will have to fly back to Seattle for a match against Inter Miami following the second leg, but that shouldn’t have any impact on their CCL games.
How rare is it that there are two MLS teams in the semifinals?
There have only been seven previous MLS semifinalists in the 13 previous years of this tournament, and this is just the third time there have been two in the same year. It’s the first time that they’ve ever faced off, however, which guarantees that one of them will become just the fifth MLS team to play in the CCL finals. No MLS team has ever won the tournament.
How big of a deal would it be for an MLS team to win this?
Pretty big! Winning CCL has long been the most notable on-field benchmark by which MLS compares itself to Liga MX. The CCL era began in 2008-09 and Liga MX has won it all 13 years in which it has been contested.
What does the winner get?
In addition to the $500,000 the winning team gets from Concacaf, they are also expected to get a berth in the Club World Cup, where they could end up facing some of the biggest clubs in the world.
You sounded unsure...
Yeah, it’s not exactly clear what’s going on with the Club World Cup right now. Way back in 2019 FIFA voted to change the format, which would have expanded it to include three teams from Concacaf and 24 overall. But the Covid-19 pandemic put those plans on hold and last year they reverted to the old format that only featured seven teams. No announcements have yet been made about the status of the next tournament.
Who is on the other side of the bracket?
The other semifinal is between two Liga MX teams, Pumas UNAM and Cruz Azul. Both are based in Mexico City and are among the traditional Liga MX powers, referred to colloquially as Cuatro Grandes. Their historic status aside, Cruz Azul is generally considered the better team right now. Cruz Azul currently sit fourth in the Liga MX table, while Pumas are ninth.
How did they get here?
Cruz Azul beat Canadian Premier League team Forge FC 4-1 in the Round of 16 and CF Montreal of MLS 2-1 in the quarterfinals. Pumas beat Costa Rica’s Saprissa 6-3 in the Round of 16 and then came back from a 3-0 first-leg deficit to beat the New England Revolution in penalties. Pumas won the first leg of their semifinal 2-1.
Where does that leave the overall CCL standings?
CCL points standings
How realistic is it for the Sounders to win the whole thing?
Maybe I’m wearing Rave Green glasses, but there’s no good reason to think they can’t. If the Sounders can actually get their Best XI onto the field together — something they’ve yet to do this year — they are as talented as any of the remaining teams. The Sounders have the added benefit of being very experienced in these kinds of games. This is a veteran group that is much closer to their prime than most MLS outfits, and most of their top players have reasonably extensive experience in international competition. The test they face in both the semis and potentially in the finals is daunting, but I like their chances.