MEXICO CITY — One of the hardest lessons high-level athletes learn is that no matter how good you are, there will almost always be someone better or at least just as good. What separates the greats from the very-goods often comes down to a willingness to suffer a little more than everyone else.
In many ways, MLS has closed the gap with Liga MX in terms of money, talent and coaching. What they’ve not been able to do is beat Liga MX when the games are the hardest, when suffering is part of the equation.
The Sounders took a significant step forward in that regard on Wednesday, gutting out a 2-2 draw with Pumas UNAM in a match that was as “Concacaf” as it gets. Thanks to their comeback from 2-0 down in one of the hardest places for MLS teams to win, the Sounders will head back to Seattle next Wednesday with history well within their grasp.
“This team, these players, rose to the occasion when the circumstances were challenging,” Sounders right back Alex Roldan told Sounder at Heart. “They had a packed house, similar to what we’ll have at home. These environments, these crowds and atmosphere really bring the best out of us as opposed to making it difficult and creating pressure.”
Before any of the specific details of the game were factored in, consider that it was being played at nearly 7,500 feet above sea level while on just three days’ rest. The Sounders played on Saturday, had Sunday off, trained in Seattle on Monday morning, got here later that evening, did a light training session on Tuesday and then played the next day.
What had been an absolutely perfect afternoon turned into an evening filled with torrential downpours and even lightning a couple of hours before the 9:30 PM kickoff. Not that it dampened the mood inside Estadio Olímpico Universitario, where Pumas supporters were already filling up the stands three hours before kickoff. To pass that time, they were being entertained by booming music provided by a DJ and some freestyle rappers, while the emcee was leading them in various cheers and doing some trash-talking of the Sounders.
By the time kickoff rolled around, the rain was still falling in sheets and the stands were effectively packed with soaking fans, many of whom were heavily lubricated in multiple ways and had been working themselves into a proper frenzy for a couple hours.
It all combined into a caldron quite unlike anything the Sounders have ever faced in MLS, and maybe not even in previous CCL matches.
Pumas did their part to give those fans plenty of reason to stay excited. Buoyed by the somewhat surprising inclusion of supposedly injured stars Juan Dinenno and Leonel Lopez, Pumas started strong by controlling possession and inflicting some pain. No one bore a bigger brunt of that than Cristian Roldan, who was on the receiving end of two particularly hard tackles in the first 30 minutes.
Pumas got their breakthrough in the 33rd minute, when Xavier Arreaga collided with an attacker in the penalty area. Salvadoran referee Ivan Barton immediately pointed to the spot. Dinenno, CCL’s leading scorer, stepped up only to have his attempt saved by Stefan Frei. But before Pumas could take the resulting corner, VAR intervened, noting that Frei came off his line a little early and giving Dinenno another chance. This time, he converted. For the first time in 573 minutes of this CCL run, the Sounders trailed.
The suffering was now both physical and competitive.
The Sounders’ situation got worse before it got better thanks to another Dinenno goal, this time rising high above Yeimar Gomez Andrade and slamming a header off a well-placed cross into the goal. It was his ninth CCL goal this year and, at that point, the Sounders’ dreams of becoming the first MLS team to win this tournament felt as distant as they ever had.
Rather than dial back their attack-focused gameplan, the Sounders pushed forward. Just two minutes after Dinenno’s goal, Nicolás Lodeiro set up Jordan Morris for an open header that he put just wide. About a minute later, Cristian Roldan slid a cross through the box that hit Raúl Ruidíaz in stride, only for Alfredo Talavera to make an impressive stop.
When Ruidíaz drew a penalty after deftly controlling a deflected corner and hitting a shot that was handled in the box, it felt more like a well-deserved break rather than a turn of luck.
But first, the Sounders needed to survive another VAR intervention. Thankfully, Barton disagreed that Arreaga’s shove of a defender was egregious enough to nullify his initial call.
Talavera and several other Pumas players tried to get into Lodeiro’s head before he took the penalty, chirping and doing their best to extend the Sounders’ suffering. But few in the world can match Lodeiro’s efficiency from the spot and it was too well taken for Talavera to stop, even after he got a hand to it. Afterward he made sure to let Talavera know what he thought of the shenanigans.
If it had ended there, I think the Sounders would have been frustrated but still confident. They had weathered storms both literal and figurative, suffered in various ways and survived.
They weren’t, however, quite done. With the game deep into stoppage time, Alex Roldan fed Cristian with a pass down the line. Fighting off a defender, Cristian controlled the pass and then went down and immediately threw his hands into the air in a plea to the ref. Before Talavera could get the ball back into play, VAR intervened for a third time. This time, Barton agreed with the assessment that Roldan was kicked. He pointed the spot.
“It’s what Cristian does best,” Alex Roldan said. “He creates havoc, he gets his body into positions where defenders aren’t happy and they’re coming through.
“Luckily, while everyone was trying to get on with the game, Cristian made it a point of staying on the floor and gave it time to get checked.”
A similar scene played out as the one about 20 minutes earlier between Talavera and Lodeiro. This time, Lodeiro gave the veteran goalkeeper no chance, blasting his shot just under the crossbar and running directly past Talavera during his celebration for good measure.
Perhaps showing just how thoroughly the pressure shifted at that point, several Pumas players surrounded Lodeiro after the final whistle, prompting teammates to come to his defense. By all accounts, the interactions were more spectacle than serious, but the Sounders were clearly feeling much better about themselves afterward.
It’s now Pumas’ turn to suffer. Pumas has experience with this as well, and have arguably been at their best when their backs are against the wall, but the Sounders will have 60,000-plus behind them.
“This team can go through adversity, they can find ways to get through challenges and today was a clear indication of what this team can do,” Alex Roldan said. “It’s almost like a clean slate now, it’s like a one-off game. We know what we need to do and we’re playing at home with our fans behind us, our supporters behind us. We’re going to put our best effort out there and hopefully get this win.”