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Sounders embracing their chance to make history

Sounders are MLS’s best chance yet to break Liga MX’s iron grip on CCL.

Mike Fiechtner / Sounders FC Communications

MEXICO CITY — The vastness of this city is hard to overstate. When flying in, the buildings seem to stretch on infinitely, over hills and through valleys. Massive skyscrapers are surrounded by low-slung concrete structures with streets crisscrossing at various angles. It’s hardly a surprise that the urban area which encompasses Distrito Federal — or D.F. as most call it — is estimated to be the fifth-largest in the world at close to 22 million people.

Estadio Olímpico Universitario, the home stadium of Pumas UNAM, is in the southern portion of the city, next to and owned by one of the world’s oldest universities.

It is an all-concrete structure that was built in 1952 and used for various events, but perhaps most famously the 1968 Summer Olympics, when Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their gloved fists on the medal, stand to protest the treatment of Black people in the United States. It also hosted four matches during the 1986 World Cup. A massive mosaic mural designed by Diego Rivera and made from volcanic rock adorns the eastern side.

The stadium, now used almost exclusively by Pumas, is quite purposefully close to a literal time capsule and is one of several buildings on the university campus designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The stands are almost all concrete benches, with some sitting below the height of the crowned pitch. The low-flung bowl is separated from the field by a sort of moat as well as a track. There are no luxury boxes, no LED ad boards, and even the iconic light stanchions and video board have only received minor updates.

The setting feels almost perfect for the Seattle Sounders as they find themselves trying to make their own history.

“For me, it’s the most important two legs of my career,” Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan told Sounder at Heart on Tuesday. “For many of us in the locker room, it’s the most important games we’ll have in our career.”

The opening for an MLS team to win this tournament has never been wider.

Capacity for tonight’s game is expected to be about 45,000, and the tickets sold out in about 15 minutes. Pumas are one of Liga MX’s historic giants, but have not won any title since 2011 and are actually the last Mexican team to lose a Concacaf final to a foreign opponent, falling in 2005 to Costa Rica’s Saprissa.

The Sounders have easily been the tournament’s best team so far. They come into tonight’s game with a 3-0-3 record and outscoring opponents 13-2, while dispatching last year’s MLS Cup winners and Liga MX side Club León.

The anticipation in Seattle is already high enough that they’ve sold well over 50,000 tickets for May 4’s home leg and club officials expect them to break the CCL attendance record of about 61,000 as long as the Sounders can get a decent result in Leg 1.

“We’re trying to make history,” Roldan said. “We’re trying to win it for Seattle, for our fans, but also for the league, something that hasn’t happened before. I think we’re embracing that kind of pressure. You just look at the crowds we’re supposed to get over the two legs, that shows the importance of the games at hand.”


One of Jackson Ragen’s first memories related to the Sounders was convincing his dad to take him to the team’s inaugural MLS match in 2009. The only problem was that capacity for the game was capped at just a bit over 32,000 and buzz had built to the point tickets were basically impossible to get through official channels.

Ragen, who was 10 at the time and an aspiring soccer player, was persistent. He really wanted to go and managed to talk his dad into attempting to find tickets from a scalper outside the stadium. With thousands of others having similar plans, there was “crazy energy” outside, but unfortunately, no tickets to be found. They instead watched the game from a nearby sports bar.

Fast-forward to today and Ragen is facing a very different dilemma. Thanks in part to his play, the Sounders have qualified for the Concacaf Champions League title. His family apparently hasn’t been shy about calling in favors.

“My family wants a lot of tickets,” Ragen told reporters last week. “But ... I don’t know.”

In many ways, this game will be something like completing the circle that began with that inaugural match. In 2009, it could be plausibly argued that game was the most important match in the history of the Sounders, dating all the way back to 1974. Yes, there had been bigger games in terms of on-field stakes, but the inaugural MLS match represented the start of something bigger.

This is that something.

Almost from the moment the Sounders joined MLS, they were open about their ambitions of not just being a successful MLS team but turning themselves into a global brand. A big part of that plan was competing in international competitions, with the ultimate prize being a spot in the Club World Cup, where they’d potentially go toe-to-toe with actual global brands like Chelsea, Barcelona or Bayern Munich.

If the Sounders can take care of business against Pumas, that’s exactly the path they’ll be on.

Garth Lagerwey joined the Sounders before the start of the 2015 season. The Sounders were coming off their most successful season yet, a double that included their fourth U.S. Open Cup and the Supporters’ Shield, their first-ever MLS trophy. Through their first six MLS seasons, the Sounders had established themselves as one of the league’s top teams and had exceeded anyone’s reasonable expectations.

For all their success, however, there was an admittedly unreasonable belief that they hadn’t quite lived up to their aspirations. The glaring hole in their resume was an MLS Cup, but there was something else even bigger that had been sort of hiding in the shadows: a CCL title.

In their first six seasons, the Sounders had qualified for the regional championship four times. Their deepest run was to the semifinals in the 2012-13 edition. But even that year, there was never a point at which they looked like they had a justifiable claim as being the best team in Concacaf.

The 2011-12 tournament was particularly illustrative of the Sounders’ place in the continental pecking order. They opened the knockout round against Liga MX’s Santos Laguna and won the first leg at home 2-1, with Herculez Gomez scoring for the visitors and giving them an important road goal.

Santos Laguna was all over the Sounders in the first half of the return leg, but the Sounders still managed to get the game to halftime even, 3-3 on aggregate. But Gomez scored four minutes into the second half, added another in the 68th and Santos Laguna scored two more to close out a 7-3 aggregate-goal win. The Sounders had been effectively played off the pitch by a team that was clearly more talented, more experienced and better in just about every way.

Just for good measure, Santos Laguna beat Toronto FC in the semifinals by the same aggregate score only to fall to fellow Liga MX side Monterrey in the finals.

Little had changed in terms of the dynamic between MLS and Liga MX in the three seasons that passed between that loss to Santos Laguna and Lagerwey joining the Sounders. Yes, the Montreal Impact would make it to a CCL final — joining Lagerwey’s 2010-11 RSL squad as the only MLS team to get that far — but the talent gap was just as clear in that 4-2 loss to Club America in 2015 as it had ever been.

All of that only seemed to embolden Lagerwey when he proclaimed his top goal to be winning CCL upon his 2015 hiring.

“Goal 1a is going to be to set ourselves up to win the Champions League,” Lagerwey told FOX 13’s Aaron Levine in one of his first interviews after taking the Sounders position. “If we want to be a global brand — that’s something we believed in a lot at my former job — if we want to put ourselves on the map, I want to play Chelsea, I want to play [Manchester United], I want to play Barcelona. And I want to play them in the Club World Cup in a meaningful game for a trophy, not in a friendly.”

Shortly after the Sounders qualified for the CCL final, Lagerwey had an idea. He wanted to take the field prior to the Sounders’ next home match against then last-place Inter Miami and give a speech to the fans. His vision was one part Winston Churchill, one part Vince McMahon and probably looked something like the “Canceling the Apocalypse” monologue Idris Elba delivered in Pacific Rim.

The reality was something short of that, admittedly. Caught in traffic caused by the convergence of the Seattle Kraken, Seattle Mariners and Sounders all playing at home and a Deftones concert at WaMu Theater also starting around the same time, Lagerwey arrived late enough to the stadium that he had to literally run through the Lumen Field concourse in order to get to the field on time.

A bit out of breath, Lagerwey still showed impressive commitment to the bit.

“Ladies and gentleman, children of all ages, welcome to Lumen Field,” he began. “I stand before you to ask for your support on May 4 for what will be the biggest day in club history ... this game is for immortality. This game is for the whole city of Seattle, the whole community.

“If you buy one more ticket in your lifetime, make it for May 4. You will be able to tell your kids that you were there when the Sounders took their shot at history. Fighting out of the rave green corner, who here will help us take on the world? Who will stand on May 4 with the Sounders?”

Over the top as it may have been, the speech was only mildly hyperbolic in its underlying message: the Sounders fully intend to pull out all the stops to make their run at history.

Buoying the Sounders’ aspirations is a concept that seems almost completely ridiculous given the history of this tournament. By almost any metric, the Sounders should be considered favorites against Pumas.

Don’t take my word for it, take Herculez Gomez’s:

“Don’t be afraid to be called favorites. Consider yourselves favorites, because you are — at least on paper,” Gomez said on the Sounder at Heart podcast this week.

“It doesn’t matter what the paper says at the end of the game, once that little round ball starts rolling around on that floor, it’s a different story. But Seattle without a doubt should be considered favorites. Player personnel, actual moments, individual talents, I would say recent history, roster makeup, whatever you want to call it, whatever you would like to dive into, they’re considered favorites.”

Gomez — who won an MLS Cup with the Sounders before joining ESPN — has plenty of data to back up his opinions, much of which flips the table on the traditional MLS-Liga MX matchup.

Imperfect as Transfermarkt may be at assessing any one player’s value, it is a reasonable proxy on aggregate when looking at whole teams or leagues. This has often been used as a shorthand way of illustrating Liga MX’s quality in comparison to MLS at both the top end and depth of the rosters.

This year, the Sounders have a pretty significant advantage almost no matter how you slice it. As a team, transfermarkt values the Sounders roster at about $48 million and Pumas at about $28 million. The Sounders’ ideal XI has a transfermarkt value of about $40 million, while Pumas are $22.1 million. That’s not just buoyed by a couple of players either — the median Sounders starter has an estimated value of $2.75M, while Pumas’ median starter is valued at $1.32M. Once you get beyond the starters, it’s not as extreme but the Sounders have about $8 million of value stashed on their bench compared to about $6 million for Pumas.

The Sounders also have a pretty significant experience advantage when it comes to both international club competitions and national team experience. The Sounders’ projected starters have 233 collective appearances in international club competitions and a median of 21 appearances. Pumas’ starters have 200 appearances and a median of 12. The Sounders also have someone like Fredy Montero — 20 goals in 59 international appearances — available off the bench, while Pumas will almost exclusively have younger players to turn to.

Similarly, the Sounders starters have 257 appearances for their respective national teams with a median of 14 caps. The only starters without national team experience are João Paulo and Stefan Frei. Pumas’ starters have just 37 total national team appearances, and 28 of those belong to 39-year-old goalkeeper Alfredo Talavera. The median Pumas starter has never made an appearance for their national team.

“While MLS has been here before, I think the Sounders are the overwhelming favorites in this CCL final and it would be a failure for them not to win,” Fox Soccer commentator Alexi Lalas told Sounder at Heart. “The Sounders have more talent, experience, and depth. The Sounders have the advantage of playing the second leg in Seattle.

“CCL is and has been a race to the moon. Every MLS team wants to plant their flag and say that they were the first to do it (within this format). It is not a panacea or a silver bullet, but in the quest for MLS’ credibility and progress, it remains a glaring box left unchecked. It has become ammunition for those looking to criticize MLS vs. Liga MX. I don’t have a dog in the fight, but nothing would delight me more that to see this great Sounders team plant the flag for Seattle and MLS and put it to bed, so we can move forward.”

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

One of the benefits of success is the virtuous cycle it tends to create. Every big game of experience a player gets gives them more information to draw from in the next one, and so on.

No MLS team has amassed the big-game experience of the Sounders, who have participated in the playoffs all 13 seasons they’ve played in MLS, have qualified for CCL an MLS-best seven times and are now playing in their sixth final since 2016. Beyond the individual experience of players, there’s an institutional experience that helps them prepare for games like this.

Brian Schmetzer can look at mistakes he may have made heading into last year’s Leagues Cup final and the 2020 MLS Cup and contrast them with what he did right ahead of the 2019 MLS Cup.

“It’s a big opportunity for the players,” Schmetzer said earlier this week, while tracing the experience back to his predecessor Sigi Schmid and even to previous eras of the team. “Sigi used to always say we want to be the first team to do this or do that because we’re Seattle Sounders. That was the inherent culture that we continue to try to build. I will echo Sigi’s words — we want to be the first ones the capture a CCL title. That’s a big, massive opportunity. It’s a big deal.”

It’s the possibility of playing games exactly like these ones against Pumas that partly attracted Albert Rusnák to Seattle this offseason.

“Everyone is aware of the situation and how big of an opportunity it is,” Rusnák said. “It’s another final and that’s what we play for as players.

“It’s not just me, if you ask anyone that’s what people remember. They want to win trophies. We’re aware of the fact that no MLS team has won it before. All of these things, we might not say it as often as you like but we’re definitely aware of it.”

At the same time, Rusnák understands that it’s not just making it to the final that’s important.

“It’s a great feeling for now, but if you don’t win it that’s ultimately it’s a wasted opportunity,” he said. “The job isn’t done yet and it won’t be done after Wednesday but we’ll see where we stand.”

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