MLS has been here before, you might have heard. In the modern incarnation of the Concacaf Champions League, four previous MLS sides have made it to last stage of the dance, only to fall flat on their face — typically in heartbreaking, if not humiliating fashion.
Indeed, once an MLS team makes it to the final, they’re typically plenty competitive, which makes the inevitable failure all the more depressing. Still, as the Seattle Sounders took the first swing at history Wednesday in Mexico City, it was a bit different. Most of the punditry were laying odds on the MLS side finally breaking the curse, coming up against a Pumas side that rated as decidedly mediocre in Liga MX.
Of course, the Sounders haven’t been any great shakes in MLS themselves, so even with the firepower on display for head coach Brian Schmetzer to deploy and — finally — a first-choice lineup to choose from, it’s still MLS vs. Liga MX in CCL, and it’s always “show, don’t tell.”
Particularly when MLS goes down to Mexico, where the struggles are often particularly acute. Sometimes, however, MLS pulls off something unusual and gets a result. And Wednesday’s match certainly qualifies as such, with the Sounders not particularly great on the day, and Pumas similarly lacking dynamism themselves. But leave it to the combination of late-night MLS and the Concacaf to supercharge proceedings, with three penalties resulting in an entertaining 2-2 draw that the Sounders will surely be pleased with, as they prepare to welcome Pumas to Lumen Field, with destiny at hand.
But beware. MLS has been here before, and when they get here, heartbreak is never far away.
Sounders were a bit hard done
Schmetzer said after the match that the Sounders weren’t at their best on the day, which was certainly true. That said, they were more than equal to the challenge presented by Pumas, and were certainly unlucky not to have a goal in their back pocket going into halftime. Even more so, they had cause to be irritated after what was arguably a soft penalty that left them down midway through the first half. Up until that point, the Sounders had control of the match, and Pumas had offered very little going forward. But the call was made and eventually the penalty was converted by Pumas star man Juan Dinenno.
VAR makes a difference
That penalty was only converted because Dinenno got two bites at the apple, after VAR determined — correctly — that Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei came off his line too early when he saved the first attempt. A pity too because the save was fantastic. Center referee Ivan Cisneros must have enjoyed his talks with the VAR staff, because he made two more trips to the monitor throughout the match. Concacaf must have been making up for lost time, having dithered bringing VAR into the final long after it has entrenched itself — for good or ill— in modern soccer.
Pumas were who we thought they were
The scouting report on Pumas was pretty rudimentary, which matched their style of play. Which is to say, they like to cross the ball from deeper positions and let their forwards get on the end of them. It’s no wonder with a forward like Dinenno, who has been banging in goals for fun throughout the tournament. It was no surprise, then, that their primary attack throughout the match was serving the ball into the penalty box and even less of one that they eventually hit paydirt, when Dinneno thumped home an exquisite cross, beating Yeimar Gomez Andrade and increasing the lead and anxiety level for Sounders fans.
Even not at their best, Sounders find a way
This was not a poor performance by any means by the Sounders, but even for a veteran team, sometimes the occasion can get to you. Schmetzer likened it to the 2019 MLS Cup final, where for the first half the Sounders struggled. Hosting your first final with 70,000 fans in attendance can do that to you. And even though the crowd wasn’t nearly that large, the moment was. That the Sounders were able to find their way back from a 2-0 deficit speaks to the ethos instilled in the team by their coach, whose mantra is that the team never quits, no matter the score. And finding a way to pull themselves back from the brink sets them up nicely for that chance at history next week.
Remember the first rule of Champions League
The Sounders head to Lumen with the home-field advantage, a full week of rest and a healthy squad. It’s all there for them and MLS to finally do the deal. There has arguably never been a better time. But remember the first rule of MLS in CCL: Heartbreak is never far away. Even so, never let that stop you from hoping this time will be the one.