Going into the second leg of the Concacaf Champions League in New Jersey with 3-1 lead, the Seattle Sounders were always favored to get the job done and advance to their first continental final. And with the Sounders mostly a full strength and NYCFC coming into the match particularly shorthanded — Maxi Moralez and Maxime Chanot were ruled out pregame — the task might have seemed much easier.
Still, MLS matches — no matter the completion format — are well known for not going to plan, least of all when Concacaf is involved. Concacaf’d is a phrase for a reason after all, and 10 seconds into the match things nearly went off the rails when Valentín Castellanos launched himself into Xavier Arreaga, earning one of the quickest yellow cards on record.
But the Sounders weathered the early aggression from the home side, and were comfortable for large parts of the first half. When Raúl Ruidíaz deftly redirected a pinpoint cross from Nouhou past Sean Johnson into the back of the net, it seemed like it was all but over, and the Sounders assured of their first Champions League final.
They were, but it wasn’t quite as comfortable as the final scoreline might indicate.
While the Sounders saw out the remainder of the first half with aplomb, the second half was more than a bit of scramble. But for some heroic goalkeeping and more than a few fortuitous bounces, things might have gotten quite a bit more dicey. In the end, however, the Sounders saw out the result, and can look forward to the chance to hoist another trophy at Lumen field.
Sweet Stefan Frei
About that goalkeeping. That the scoreline remained as comfortable as it did was in large part to the Sounders' defensive wall. Particularly in the second half, when NYCFC poured seemingly all of their outfield players into the Sounders penalty area, Stefan Frei repeatedly repelled their attacks, either controlling an endless barrage of crosses, or stopping point-blank shots that had no business being kept out of the back of the goal. The soccer gods must have been impressed with the display, as they lent a helping hand on the few shots that did make it past Frei only to bounce off the post.
Raúl Ruidíaz joins the party
Much like Albert Rusnák, Raúl Ruidíaz had endured a slow start to the 2022 season, though in the latter’s case it was due mostly to an extended injury absence. Ruidíaz was involved just about every which way against NYCFC, helping to facilitate attacks and providing the safety net the Sounders needed with a fantastic finish midway through the first half. NYCFC fans might gripe that his biggest contribution was his use of some of the “dark arts” of Concacaf time-wasting, but Ruidíaz is nothing if not a showman.
Sounders will need to clean up their second half
It wasn't the first time this year the Sounders have had to present a rear-guard action in the second half of a match they had up to that point largely controlled. While against Leon they were on the back foot for much of the match, here they were in cruise control through halftime. However, NYCFC came out swinging and got their reward early in the second half, and from there it was all hands on deck. To be fair, the Sounders had more than a couple of opportunities in the second half to add another goal, they didn’t, and as Frei said after the match, if they play like that on the road against Pumas, it’s probably not going to end well.
Ragen continues to hold up well
With the Sounders ascendant for much of the first half, a chunk of the credit has to Jackson Ragen, who continues his progression as a reliable MLS centerback. Displaying impressive composure on the ball, Ragen on more than one occasion broke through the NYCFC defense with precision diagonal balls, none more impressive than the one that led to the Sounders only goal. It was another steady performance for the one-time Tacoma Defiance signee, particularly important as Yeimar continues to nurse a nagging ankle injury.
Nouhou is, well Nouhou
Coming back from suspension, Nouhou was missed for all the reasons that fans typically miss him, but he added some less expected contributions in his return. Nouhou was instrumental on the Sounders’ goal, sending in the pass that was so well finished by Ruidíaz. It was Nouhou’s first assist since 2020 and just his third of his professional career. While fans have long clamored for Nouhou to get a goal himself, Schmetzer will probably be happier to see Nouhou’s assist totals escalate, as that would be of more benefit generally to the Sounders, particularly as they look to balance their attack going forward.