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Ranking the biggest Sounders games in MLS history

A definitive ranking ahead of the unquestionably massive CCL Final matchup

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Mike Russell / Sounder at Heart

Today marks the first leg of the 2022 Concacaf Champions League Final, featuring our Seattle Sounders FC and Club Universidad National, A.C., aka Pumas UNAM. Unquestionably, this is one of the biggest games in the Sounders’ history. Many are saying it is the biggest matchup in their history, for good reason.

These definitive rankings are here to settle the debate over which matchup is the biggest. You may have your own opinions, but I am here to tell you why they are likely illogical and therefore incorrect. If there are zero comments on this article, as I expect, I will consider it a job well done. OK, I expect some comments at least from the people who couldn’t be bothered to read the whole article. The rest of you dear readers? You can leave your keyboards at home and enjoy a walk through the history of the Sounders’ biggest MLS games.

“Big”? “Massive”?

The first thing we must do is define what we mean by “Biggest” or “Massive”? First, we turn to the master to get a sense of what we’re talking about.

In one sense, the “biggest” or most “massive” match might mean the one with the highest attendance. If that was our definition, these rankings would be purely objective and easy to determine. But that is not really what we mean, as there have certainly been plenty of big matches that were not as well attended as others. Attendance is a factor but not the factor.

We could expand our definition a bit and include total attention to the match instead of just physical attendance. We could try and factor in television and radio ratings as well as media attention in the form of stories and social media about the game. But that just introduces a different problem, as games that are important to the Sounders might not have meaning for a national audience, and games important nationally might not mean much for the Sounders. We will consider it though.

Another factor to consider is what success in the match means in terms of awards. Is there a championship to be had? Some sort of trophy? Meaningful fan award? Bonuses for players? “Pretty” glassware made by a local artist? (I’m kidding) I don’t think anyone will dispute that this is an important factor (maybe the most important).

Finally, we have an “emotional quotient.” Games that are extremely meaningful to the fans or the team for reasons that cannot be explained simply by the trophies involved, the attendance or the national attention to the game. Stuff like a local or national team legend’s final regular-season home game for the club. A rivalry game that doesn’t mean anything more than bragging rights in the rivalry. Maybe it’s something more ephemeral.

Something we are not considering is how important a game was with the benefit of hindsight. So, games like the historical first win in Mexico, clutch comeback wins, or the Western Conference Final that sent the Sounders to the MLS Cup for the first time will not be on the list here. Additionally, for ease of reference, I will refer to Home and Away series as a single “match” to avoid inane debates about whether the home or away half of the series is a bigger “game” than the other.

Using these factors, I have developed a proprietary algorithm to measure the Bigness of the biggest and most massive Sounders matches in their MLS history. To translate this algorithm to an easily digestible format, we will be using the scale of 1 to 10 Schmetzers, with 1 on the Schmetzer Scale being a preseason closed-door session, a 3 being a midseason match against a mid-table opponent, a 6 being an average playoff game, and a 10 being any game that is a Massive Fucking Deal. If games are tied on the Schmetzer scale you can imagine their positions are flipped if you want, but I am still going to definitively rank them from 11 to 1. Let’s get to it.

11. First CCL Knockout Match - March 2012

Result: 7-3 aggregate loss vs Santos Laguna

7/10 Schmetzers

We are starting off hot with one of the biggest opportunities the Sounders had in their young history. Before flaming out of the 2010-2011 CCL group stage in last place with a measly three points in six matches, the Sounders ensured a spot in the 2011-2012 CCL by winning the 2010 US Open Cup. Their second entry into the tournament was much stronger, dispatching San Francisco (of Panama) 2-1 after extra time in the preliminary round, and then placed second in the group stage largely off the back of a historical 1-0 win in Mexico against Monterrey.

The Sounders were matched against Santos Laguna, winners of Group B. The Sounders had the opportunity to be the first MLS team in CCL competition (and the first since the KC Wizards in the 2002 Champion’s Cup) to defeat a Mexican team in a Home and Away series. Hopes were high, coming off the previous win in Mexico, as this could have marked a new era for MLS and the Sounders. The home leg went well enough with a 2-1 win, and the away leg started OK with a 3-3 aggregate score at halftime. Unfortunately, all us Sounders fans (including those of us at the Goalazo watch party) saw the wheels fall off in the second half as Santos Laguna put away four goals (including two from none other than Sounder and broadcaster Herculez Gomez) to zero for the Sounders. It was a big match, but it wasn’t meant to be in 2012.

10. Keller’s Farewell Match - October 2011

Result: 2-1 win vs San Jose Earthquakes

7.5/10 Schmetzers

You might be surprised to find a relatively meaningless game on this list. This was not one of the games I initially thought of as constituting a “big” match; I had to be reminded of why it might eclipse some other more “meaningful” matches. This game had little impact on the table since the LA Galaxy had already clinched the Supporters’ Shield and the Sounders were highly unlikely to fall out of the second spot in the Western Conference. San Jose were well out of the playoff race as well.

But this game was massively hyped for two big reasons. First, it was 41-year-old Kasey Keller’s final home match of the regular season. After a globe-trotting career that started in Portland and ended in Seattle, the legend was ready to hang up his boots. Second, this match was the first time that all the tarps in the upper deck were removed for a nearly sold-out game. The official attendance would end up at 64,140, very close to a capacity crowd. This match showed that, under the right conditions, the Sounders could fill the stadium just like the Seahawks for a truly sensational atmosphere.

And what an atmosphere it was. An early Chris Wondolowski goal put San Jose ahead for most of the game, and the Sounders struggled to get back into it. And in the 65th minute, a poor back pass from Patrick Ianni forced Keller into a wild series of stops that would eventually become the 2011 Save of the Year and cement Keller’s place as the 2011 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year. Seriously, watch this sequence and enjoy the crowd amping up a level with each subsequent stop:

Fortunately, the Sounders did not waste Keller’s heroics, with Sammy Ochoa scoring in the 82nd minute and Fredy Montero putting in the winner in the 87th minute. It was a truly incredible game that told any casual Seattle fan that Sounders games could be just as massive as any Seahawks match at CenturyLink Lumen Field.

9. 2010 US Open Cup Final in Seattle - October 2010

Result: 2-1 win vs Columbus Crew

8/10 Schmetzers

The 2010 US Open Cup Final was not the first opportunity for the Sounders to earn hardware — they already had the 2009 US Open Cup in their case — but it was the first opportunity for the fans in Seattle to be present for such an occasion. The Sounders looked to defend their 2010 trophy in front of 31,311 fans at Qwest Field, and managed to do so with a brace from Sanna Nyassi. Not only did this game ensure the Sounders would return to the Champions League, it meant the Sounders were more than a one-and-done sort of franchise that won the 2009 US Open Cup and made the playoffs on a fluke. The Sounders were going to remain competitive and collect trophies on almost a yearly basis.

8. 2020 Fourth MLS Cup Final - December 2020

Result: 3-0 Loss at CLB

8.5/10 Schmetzers

Playing for a league championship is going to be a big deal in any year, and you could certainly argue that there is no way this game could be any lower than fourth or fifth on this list. It was the Sounders’ fourth MLS Cup Final in five years, with more people coming around to the “Dynasty” word in describing the Sounders under Schmetzer. Arguably, you shouldn’t ever put a league championship lower than 9/10 Schmetzers. But this game was a little different for a few reasons that definitively knock it behind some of the other bigger, more massive games.

First of all, this game was played in the empty-stadium pandemic era. The official fan attendance was limited to just 1,500 people in Columbus, Ohio. This game certainly received plenty of media attention and was one of the most-watched MLS games of the year (if not the most, maybe someone can look that up for me). But the absence of fans the whole year and the global crisis took some luster off the importance of this particular championship game. (Some dark and deluded corners of the internet suggest that it wasn’t even the most impressive MLS trophy of the year. They would be wrong, but still, that thought is out there.)

But it was a championship game and would have meant the Sounders would be just the third team to win more than two MLS Cups. And it would have made it hard to disagree with the dynasty claims. That kind of historic opportunity is rare. Hopefully, it won’t be long until the Sounders do win their third (they are due for it according to the recent Western Conference history, knock on wood).

7. 2009 First US Open Cup Final - September 2009

Result: 2-1 win at DC United

8.5/10 Schmetzers

This game was what put the Sounders on the map as a championship-oriented franchise. As Schmetzer said, championship opportunities do not come around often, but they do more so for the Sounders than elsewhere. Right out of the gates, the Sounders took the US Open Cup as an opportunity instead of a midseason hindrance. They outbid opponents for hosting rights, they played strong squads, and they were rewarded with the opportunity to win their first hardware in their first year in the league. This was a huge opportunity for the young squad to set the bar high for the rest of their MLS existence.

And they sure did set the bar high. The game was hard-fought for two-thirds of the night, but the Sounders had a breakthrough in the 67th minute when Fredy Montero put away the rebound from a Freddie Ljungberg header (off a Steve Zakuani cross). DC United goalkeeper Josh Wicks lost his damn mind in frustration from the goal and stomped on Fredy’s stomach as he went to collect the ball out of the net. Though there was no VAR back then, the refs came to the right decision and showed Wicks a red card in the 69th minute. The Sounders got a second goal in the 86th minute from Roger Levesque and, after a goal for DC United from Clyde Simms in the 89th minute, weathered an extra-time storm for their first trophy in MLS.

6. 2017 MLS Cup Final (“Toronto Strikes Back”) - December 2017

Result: 2-0 loss at Toronto FC

9/10 Schmetzers

The middle game of the MLS Cup Final “Trilogy,” this was certainly a massive game for the Sounders. If you wanted to move this game up a couple of slots, I would understand and forgive the mistake.

This Final was a rematch against a team that seemed unbeatable. The 2017 Toronto FC won the Supporters’ Shield with 69 points (then a record) and an astounding +37 Goal Differential. They finessed the New York Red Bulls using the away-goal tiebreaker and beat Columbus 1-0 on aggregate. Their defense was strong and their offense capable of pouring in goals through Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco.

Meanwhile, the Sounders had again started poorly but went on a late run through the second half of the season, only losing twice after June 21, to finish second in the Western Conference. The Sounders looked like the stronger team in the playoffs, dispatching the Vancouver Whitecaps 2-0 and easily handling the Houston Dynamo 5-0 in the Western Conference Finals. This matchup certainly was a big deal.

Unfortunately, the game failed to live up to the billing. The Sounders were under pressure from the opening whistle, especially lacking the defensive leadership of the injured Ozzie Alonso. The Sounders managed to hold it even going into halftime, but two second half goals put the game out of reach for the Sounders who struggled to find any opportunities to score. The final scoreline made the match appear much closer than it was in reality. The disappointing result doesn’t change that this game was still one of the biggest in Sounders history.

5. Inaugural Match - March 2009

Result: 3-0 win vs New York Red Bulls

9/10 Schmetzers

In hindsight, this game was not really that big of a deal. About 32,000 fans showed up to Qwest Field for a night of soccer against an Eastern Conference rival and saw the team in Rave Green dispatch them easily for a 3-0 victory. Montero scored a brace and Brad Evans had another goal in a comfortable win. Many more fans would be at later games. In fact, the game would go on to be the Sounders’ least attended MLS home opener, Covid-19-limited crowd in 2021 aside. This was a fairly ordinary game in the grand scheme of things.

And, looking back, there is no doubt that Seattle’s fans were eager and hungry to support this soccer team. Even if the first game had gone poorly, they would have showed up and shouted and cheered. ECS was never going to do anything else. If attendance was disappointing to start, the hype would have grown. If the initial games had gone poorly, Sigi Schmid and Brian Schmetzer would have gotten them back on track. Zakuani and Montero and Alonso would have still grown and shown their incredible quality; Keller and Levesque and Evans would still have been rock solid as leaders. The team would have been fine even if it took some time to get into gear.

But none of that was known in 2009. It is hard to overstate how different of an era it was for MLS in 2009 to people who weren’t watching at that time. After the league’s contraction from Florida in 2002, it was very much an open question how much more MLS could grow. In 2004, Chivas USA and Real Salt Lake joined the league. Chivas was, well, Chivas, while RSL was a small-market success. Then San Jose moved to Houston in 2006, where the team did well enough but nothing revolutionary. Toronto FC joined in 2007, though, and showed a different kind of blueprint for success in MLS. They opened BMO Field that year to raucous crowds of dedicated support. Their success showed a different kind of MLS team and support could succeed. It was later that year that MLS would announce expansion to Seattle.

The challenge for Seattle was to try and replicate the kind of grassroots fan atmosphere that Toronto had shown and translate that to a cavernous NFL stadium that led to flat crowd experiences in New England and New Jersey. Keep in mind that the rest of Cascadia were left behind in USL and Philadelphia’s nice waterfront stadium had not yet been built. It was an open question whether games at Qwest would just be like New England games or if it would be something different. Atlanta United? Their success was still just a twinkle in Jeremiah Oshan’s eye.

There is an alternate history somewhere out there where the Seattle MLS team simply did not have the same success. Maybe the team executives went through with their plans to make a clean break from the “minor league” USL team and renamed it the Seattle Alliance while letting Schmetzer go entirely and bringing in a different coach (maybe Dominic Kinnear or Preki returned to Seattle or someone like Frank Yallop or Gary Smith were convinced to sit out a year and join in 2009 instead of their respective teams in 2008). Maybe the FO decided to move ECS to a different and smaller section farther away from the match, cracking down on their use of signs and flags. They could have priced tickets for profit instead of attendance, keeping just a premium set of lower bowl seats. They could have forced everyone to sit. A lot of things could have gone differently.

So, when the Sounders opened the 2009 season to over 30,000 fans, all of whom exploded in the 12th minute for Montero’s first-ever Sounders goal, there was a collective sigh of relief from everyone who was worried. The Sounders would have amazing support and they would be good. Not just another expansion team that would struggle to stay afloat in a mid-tier league, the Sounders would be a leader in attendance and in trophies. That opening night in 2009 was proof-of-concept for all the success that would follow.

I am sure you could argue that this match could be dropped from the list entirely. After all, in hindsight, it was just another Sounders game. But for me it is still one of the most massive in their history.

4. Supporters’ Shield Match - October 2014

Result: 2-0 win vs Los Angeles Galaxy

9.5/10 Schmetzers

Back in 2013, some big-brained schedule-monger decided it would be a wonderful idea for the Sounders and LA Galaxy to play each other three times in 2014. The headliner of the series was a home-and-away series to conclude the season. By some weird quirk of fate, the Sounders and Galaxy found themselves in a grudge match in this series for the Supporters’ Shield. The Sounders would earn the shield if they won one of the two games or tied both, while the Galaxy needed at least 4 points from the series due to the “Total Wins” tiebreaker. The Supporters’ Shield at the time was still seen by many as the premier MLS award, as the games played between teams was still somewhat balanced. The Sounders also lacked any MLS-specific hardware, as the first MLS Cup appearance and victory was still two years away.

Thus this series, and specifically the home leg, was a massive opportunity for the club. The Sounders took care of business in Carson, managing a 2-2 draw while losing Leo Gonzalez to a late red card. However, the draw left the door open for the Galaxy to earn the Supporters’ Shield with a win in Seattle. It would also mean a draw would give the Sounders the Shield with a big asterisk — though the Sounders owned the Total Wins tiebreaker at 19 to 17, the Galaxy were sitting on a hefty +34 GD to the Sounders’ +13 GD. “Conventional” tiebreaker rules would have otherwise given the Shield to the Galaxy, and indeed MLS has returned to GD as the primary tiebreaker in the standings.

However, the 2-0 home victory off the two late goals from Marco Pappa meant the Sounders stood alone at the top of the table, earning their first-ever MLS trophy. Here are the late highlights if you want to re-live that fun match.

3. 2016 MLS Cup Final (“A New Hope”) - December 2016

Result: 0-0 (5-4 pks) win at Toronto FC

10/10 Schmetzers

Now we reach the top of our scale. It truly does not get any bigger than a 10 on the Schmetzer Scale, and this game fits the bill. If you want to put any of these 10/10 top three at the top of your list, I would understand. These were all massive games that were historic for a variety of reasons.

2016 was a wild year for the Sounders. I am sure nearly everyone here has heard the story before — the Sounders started slow and played terrible into the summer. Things were so poor (9th out of 10 in the West, 17th out of 20 overall) they fired their only coach of the MLS era, the legendary Sigi Schmid. Despite the historic success of the squad, the 2014 Shield was the only hardware the Sounders had earned so far. Everyone could see the team had talent, but Schmid was not making enough of it.

When Schmid was fired, Schmetzer, the former USL coach and assistant coach to Schmid through the years, was given the rest of the season to make his case for staying on. If things had stayed poor, it would be no surprise to see Schmetzer let go and the whole staff cleaned out, with some players not far behind.

Of course, you all probably know that is not what happened. Schmetzer turned the team around with the help of Nicolas Lodeiro and Alvaro Fernandez as midseason signings. Lodeiro hit the ground running and the team blazed through the second half of the season and into the playoffs. They made it to the MLS Cup Final and Schmetzer made it clear that he was the right coach for Seattle.

This game was an opportunity for Seattle to join the ranks of league champions, their first time on the biggest stage the league offers. Only ten other teams had made it to the top of that mountain before, and Toronto and Seattle were both first-timers on the final stage. It was a chance for that legendary Sounders core of Brad Evans, Ozzie Alonso, Cristian Roldan, Jordan Morris, Chad Marshall, and Stefan Frei to show they were the best in the league. It was a chance to earn rings for Clint Dempsey (sidelined with his heart ailment) and Herculez Gomez, once a villain and now a hero. A chance to show that Schmetzer was not just a USL-level coach who got lucky with a talented team, but good enough to coach them to win a trophy. A chance for Frei to show Toronto how much they should regret letting him go.

And oh, what a performance they put on. The Sounders largely played organized and compact, mostly limiting Toronto to a handful of hopeful volleys and few quality chances. Possession, duels, tackles, clearances and fouls were all relatively even. The big talking point after the game though was the shot disparity: 19 to 3 shots with 7 to 0 shots on goal in Toronto’s favor. You can chalk that up to the Sounders playing conservatively on the road in the frigid Toronto winter if you want, but Toronto definitely generated the better chances. MLS did not even include a single attacking moment from the Sounders in their highlight video. American Soccer Analysis put Toronto’s xG at 1.41 and Seattle’s at 0.06. Definitely a better performance for Toronto, but nothing like the insane difference in performance some commentators said it was in hindsight. And it would have been a Toronto win if not for The Save. If you aren’t familiar, or you just haven’t watched it yet today, here’s the comprehensive Rewinder episode for you (it’s nearly 15 minutes long but well worth your time):

Frei’s heroics put the Sounders in position to win their first MLS Cup and Roman Torres delivered the winning PK, as the Sounders invented winning a championship with zero shots on goal.

2. 2022 CCL Final - April/May 2022

Result: TBD

10/10 Schmetzers

This series is, obviously, a Massive Fucking Deal. A Big Fucking Game. Just listen to Marshawn. I hope you will be there cheering with me, time and finances allowing. You surely know that the Sounders have never won the Concacaf Champions League. They have been foiled by clubs at varying levels at all stages of the tournament (save the Final). And you may not have heard, but no MLS team has ever won the CCL in its history. Yes, DC United and LA Galaxy claim regional trophies from the old “Champions Cup,” but those were wins from a very different tournament. DCU and LAG both hosted the tournaments they won, which took place over the course of six days at their home stadiums. There is a reason MLS has been obsessed with the CCL title despite having these regional championships from more than 20 years ago.

The Sounders have the opportunity to quite literally invent MLS winning CCL. If other fanbases thought we were insufferable before, I will be quite happy to prove them right by holding this title over Everyone Everywhere All at Once (by the way, go see Everything Everywhere All at Once this weekend, it is well worth your time). Even though CCL is a stupid tournament with poor scheduling that wrecks its participants' ability to compete in the league matches that are going on at the same time, it is still a coveted trophy for a reason.

With a win the Sounders will ensure the Sounders get to go and compete in the “ultra-prestigious” and “competitive” Club World Cup and rub shoulders with the likes of Liverpool or Real Madrid to try and woo some of their players to the States. (to be clear, I am joking) (also, the Sounders may have already qualified for the future CWC if FIFA does indeed expand future iterations to 24 teams, taking three from CONCACAF).

Regardless, the CCL trophy will be one the Sounders will have that no other MLS team can claim. Mexican and Spanish-speaking attention to this series might be even bigger than English-speaking media, possibly (probably?) bigger than American attention just to MLS Cup.

If there is to be one knock against this game, especially the home leg on May 4, it is that the Sounders look unlikely to sell out Lumen Field ahead of the game, absent a serious push from fans over the next week. There are thousands of tickets available still available here. Pumas apparently sold out their tickets in about fifteen minutes after they went on sale, albeit for a reduced capacity that might be closer to 40,000. The number one game on our list had over 69,000 fans filling Lumen Field and Keller’s farewell match might end up having more fans.

Wednesday night is just not an ideal soccer night. Plus, there are very real continuing Covid-19 concerns, especially with increasing case numbers.

For those attending next Wednesday, I strongly recommend taking appropriate measures to protect yourself, not to mention your family, friends and the community.

Whether you can make the match or are just watching or listening from home, I expect we will be in for a treat. This is a historical matchup for the Sounders and an opportunity for the league to land that white whale. Hopefully, the Sounders add another prestigious trophy to their list.

1. 2019 MLS Cup Final (“Return of the Rave Green”) - December 2019

Result: 3-1 win vs Toronto FC

10/10 Schmetzers

The final game of “The Trilogy,” the Sounders hosted Toronto FC in the 2019 MLS Cup Final. “A New Hope” ended with an improbable and implausible victory for the Sounders/the Rebellion, while “Toronto Strikes Back” left the “heroes” in defeat after a series of overwhelming victories. After some time to regroup, the Sounders got to host Toronto this time on their own turf. With largely the same core for both teams as the 2016 and 2017 matches, the 2019 Final was an opportunity for both teams to try and put their stamp on the rivalry.

Toronto showed up in Seattle hoping to prove that they were truly the superior team by winning one on the road in front of a massive and hostile crowd. The Sounders set the stage for a redemption game that would erase the bad memories of 2017 and add a second championship to their trophy cabinet. It was a struggle between two league superpowers to establish their own claims for that mythic “D” word — Dynasty.

Don’t forget that the Sounders were never supposed to be there. Los Angeles FC steamrolled the league in 2019, setting another record with 72 points and a truly insane +48 GD. The Sounders ended up well behind them at 56 points and a measly +2 GD on the year. LAFC not only allowed 12 fewer goals than the Sounders did, they also scored 34 more than the Sounders did on the year. FC Cincinnati didn’t even score 34 goals all year long! LAFC handled LA Galaxy at home in the El Trafico in a wild 5-3 match and were widely expected to send Seattle packing.

Obviously, that is not what happened. The game started about as expected with an Atuesta free kick goal in the 16th minute. But Ruidiaz put home a chance in the 22nd minute and Lodeiro added another in the 26th. Ruidiaz would score again in the 64th minute for the 3-1 victory. LAFC could not figure out the Sounders’ organized defense and were mauled on the counter from the incisiveness of Ruidiaz and Lodeiro and the speed of Morris and Joevin Jones. In the end, Brian felt better than Bob and the Sounders would make it a rematch.

And of course, the 2019 MLS Cup Final was the game that set the Sounders’ attendance record. Additional seats were added and filled to a grand total of 69,274 in attendance. It was a chance for the Sounders to show off to the league and, to an extent, the world. Every voice in that stadium reverberated through the city and over the air.

This final had everything to make it a massive game. Hosting a league Championship? Yeah, there’s a trophy. Biggest attendance in team and city history? Check. Massive national and some international attention? Yes sir. Emotional factor considering the huge storylines of the third Sounders vs Toronto final in four years? Definitely.

If you want one more small thing to push this game over the top of the 2022 CCL Final, it’s that it is a single-elimination match. Ninety minutes where everything is in play. It’s just that bit different from a home and away series, where you play for ninety minutes, then have some time to regroup, and the final 90+ has that aggregate score to work against. The excitement is spread out over the two legs, instead of packed just into that final. There is something to be said for a total blank slate heading into that fateful ninety minutes.

Thus, the 2019 MLS Cup Final is definitively the Biggest, Most Massive Fucking Game in the Sounders’ MLS history.