Much has been made over the term “match-winners” in recent years. The rather straightforward thinking is that the more a team has, the better equipped they are to win important games, make deep runs in the MLS Playoffs or perform well in cup competitions.
That the Seattle Sounders tend to have their fair share of these players helps explain why they’ve done so well in these situations.
While their track record may provide a satisfactory autopsy and help set future expectations, those players must still actually perform in order to keep the results coming. You only truly know when a match-winners best days are behind them in retrospect.
Based on Wednesday’s performance, it appears the Sounders still have their share of players performing at that level. None were bigger than Stefan Frei and Raúl Ruidíaz in sending the Sounders to their first continental final in club history and potentially setting themselves up to become the first MLS team to win the Concacaf Champions League.
Frei had a particularly vintage performance. The one-time MLS Cup MVP was credited with seven saves, six of which came on shots from inside the penalty area. He was at his absolute best down the stretch when New York City FC ramped up their pressure and unleashed a barrage of chances unlike anything else the Sounders have faced in recent memory. NYCFC generated 3.29 expected goals — nearly a goal more than the Sounders had allowed in any game over the past two years — but only found the back of the net once.
“Probably not the way we wanted it to happen,” Frei said. “That goal gave them momentum. Some teams throw a kitchen sink at it, today they threw a bathtub at it. We were able to withstand things but not break. We put out a lot of effort. They had us under a lot of pressure.”
There were no shortage of big saves, but the biggest may have been in the 73rd minute just as NYCFC were seemingly on the verge of seizing control of the match and suddenly looking capable of erasing what had become a three-goal deficit. Taty Castellanos streaked in behind the Sounders defense then sent a square ball through the box that found Talles Magno all alone in front of goal for the kind of chance players dream about. Jackson Ragen had been able to deflect the pass slightly but not enough to put off Magno, whose shot went back across the goal just like he surely wanted. Frei came off his line aggressively in an effort to cut the angle and kicked out his left leg just enough to save the shot with his foot.
This save will go down in #Sounders history as one of the most important for this franchise.— Niko Moreno (@ELROLONW) April 14, 2022
Stefan Frei was absolutely crucial in last night's 1-1 draw against #NYCFC, his composure and ability to get big when closing down on the shooter is brilliant.
Ruidíaz’s match-winning moment came in the first half, one-touching a shot from near the penalty spot off a cross from Nouhou. It was Ruidíaz’s first goal since Nov. 1, 2021, ending a five-game goal-less drought that was tied for the longest of his Sounders career.
“We’ve had to have a lot of players step forward in critical moments,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer said. “We’ve had a hard road. We’ve needed everyone. I congratulate that group for doing many, many good things.”
As important as it was for the Sounders to get those big-time performances from their big-time players, what seems to consistently separate them from many of their MLS peers is how players up and down their roster are capable of stepping into those moments. Nouhou had just two assists in his professional career, but delivered an absolute dime to Ruidíaz; Ragen has played less than 600 minutes in his MLS career, but consistently stood up for teammates when the match turned physical; Kelyn Rowe came off the bench to make several big plays, including two goal-line clearances on the corner following Frei’s big save.
The secret, it seems, is everyone believes they’re capable of being “match-winners.”
“That’s why players come to this organization because ultimately you want to play for trophies,” Frei said. “This franchise has a high standard. Sometimes that means pressure. The players enjoy that pressure. We appreciate the fact that we have opportunities to be in pressure moments. For some players, it comes never. They play for 10-15 years and never have a chance at a trophy.”
If the Sounders are able to finish this off, it feels deserved. The Sounders are currently unbeaten during CCL play — 3-0-3 — while navigating a path that has taken them through a traditional Central American power, one of Liga MX’s best teams and the defending MLS Cup winners. They’ve outscored those opponents 13-4 despite missing some of their top players for many of those games.
Pumas could prove to be the Sounders’ biggest challenge, a historic Mexican power with a massive fanbase whose own run to the final potentially represents a long-awaited return to glory. The seven-time Liga MX winners haven’t won any sort of title since 2011.
If there’s one MLS team to trust won’t be consumed by the moment, it might just be a Sounders team that will be playing in its sixth final in seven years.
“The fact that I was able to take part in 2016, a historic moment in the franchise, there’s very select few opportunities to make history,” Frei said. “That one is gone. There is still one for MLS. If you can be that one [to win CCL first], it’s going to be massive for your career, for the franchise, for everybody involved. What a massive opportunity.”