The first choice starting lineup fielded by Brian Schmetzer Wednesday night in Mexico City for the CONCACAF Champions League first leg is perhaps the most potent attacking starting group the Sounders have ever put together. It's an extensively internationally capped group that is generating eye-popping levels of xG when in their groove and drawing tessellations with the ball in midfield.
At times though, and mostly in MLS this year, this team has struggled to convert the accumulated xG to actual goals on the scoreboard. Sounders aren't wanting for opportunities (cue 2016 MLS Cup Final shudder). Rather we're now seeing the potential of too many of these good chances go unrealized. This story repeated itself on Wednesday.
Nevertheless, despite a lot of woodwork and otherwise underwhelming finishing in 2022, Wednesday's away tie versus UNAM Pumas showed this group is also scoring goals in a way we haven't really seen Sounders operate previously: persistence in possession in and around the box has earned them a number of penalty kicks and they are converting them with style.
Sounders are making their own luck in new ways and came out of a hostile Mexico City environment all square on the scoreboard with a second leg at home to look forward to. The away goals rule doesn't apply in this final, and so everything is to play for.
A seasoned CONCACAF watcher will understand the concept of 'Quality Soccer' is often thwarted by many of the other extraneous elements involved beyond the 22 players and the ball, and this is especially the case for MLS teams coddled in soccer specific stadia. Bad field conditions, high pressure environments for players and fans, pre-season scheduling of the early tournament games, intestinal distress, wildly unequal player wage budgets, long travel, the associated swings in climate and elevation when transiting the tropics. And of course, the referees... Maybe I should have put them first in the list of wildcards.
While MLS was an early adopter to Video Assisted Review (VAR), it's still new in CONCACAF competitions, and it shows. Referees who previously had to maintain order within games through sheer force of will and ego are now being asked to double-check themselves, but not forced to, so we see wildly different applications of VAR against a now quite orderly approach from MLS on the matter.
We saw this complete range of variation in process in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League Final. After calling a foul in the box on Arreaga, a foul neither the center ref or line ref could have seen all the details of as all the players were facing the goal right next to one another, the ref earnestly pointed to his ear after whistling as if invoking that VAR was on the line. The overwhelming reaction on Twitter from players was that the call was very soft and Arreaga had clearly played the ball and touched it before making contact with the Pumas player. The ref however seemed to think tapping his ear absolved him of having to actually look at the monitor, and then proceeded as if VAR was not an available tool. Sounders go down 1-0 after a retake following a spectacular Frei save where he was just over his line on ball contact and the VAR review of his foot positioning did happen and found him guilty.
For the stoppage-time penalty kick earned by Roldan, a foul wasn't even called at first, because again, the ref didn't actually have a view of it right at the endline. Finally after quite a bit of review by VAR officials, the ref is called over to the monitor and after further very close inspection he has to reluctantly admit the defender made no ball contact and award a spot kick. This was the correct process to follow. (One can't help but wonder at the sliver of ball contact the ref was so earnestly searching for on review to absolve the Pumas player of an infraction. Arreaga was not given the same benefit of a review and the video clearly showed he was playing the ball and made ball contact first. By that same "sliver of ball contact" standard Arreaga should have been absolved as well on review.)
Neither of these events was a cut-and-dry foul call and both involved actions outside of the full view of the center ref. These are the exact situations VAR is supposed to be for, yet it was fully utilized in only one of the cases, and only with apparent reluctance to make the right call. Taken together these events demonstrate how expecting anything to be consistent or easy in CONCACAF, even what we now consider to be basic rules and processes in MLS and European football, can be a fatal assumption.
Historically, as a Sounders supporter, in big moments I've often felt that this team wanting to win simply on good soccer terms was naive. The distasteful gamesmanship synonymous with CONCACAF competitions seemed to be beyond them. "Nice guys finish last" has been playing out with this team for years. This edition though the Sounders seem attuned to the right dynamic in a way we've not seen this team be before, or perhaps any MLS team be in this competition prior. And the Sounders are coming out ahead as a result.
Reviewing the list of awarded spot kicks it's impossible to escape the impact they have had in Sounders' CCL run or in their best league win.
Penalties Earned in 2022
MLS vs Galaxy - Fredy Montero (fouled)
MLS vs San Jose - Raul Ruidiaz (fouled)
CCL Quarter - Joao Paulo (fouled)
CCL Quarter - Cristian Roldan (fouled)
CCL Semi - Raul Ruidiaz (fouled)
CCL Final - Raul Ruidiaz (caused a handball, not considered a 'PK Won' on stats sheet, but we I think we can agree he earned this one by deeking his marker)
CCL Final - Cristian Roldan (fouled)
In their biggest MLS game of the year so far, Fredy Montero's drawn foul and then conversion from the spot at the stroke of halftime was the go ahead goal following Chicharito's early-game dagger. A massive turnaround in a single half against one of this MLS Season's best teams.
On paper on aggregate the CCL semi's and quarters's would have been won without the penalty kicks, but the simple scoreline ignores the many dynamics involved in this competition and the drama within these games specifically. The two pens versus Leon in the quarterfinals, one in each game, made a huge difference in providing confidence and stablity against a LigaMX team who the Sounders lost a frustrating final to last September while allowing 3 goals. Rudiaz earning a two goal lead to take into the away semifinal leg against a very competent NYCFC offense that won MLS Cup last season was critical in keeping them off balance and Taty Castellanos under unusual pressure to score (which he did not do in either leg).
In Wednesday's first leg at kickoff it appeared the environment was indeed very stacked against them: elevation, weather, long grass, an egotistical ref. And yet again the Sounders met the moment unconventionally. Stef Frei's initial PK save pointed to the level of focus in this group. The focus didn't wane after the let down of the VAR-instigated retake. It didn't slip away after going 2 down on an unfortunate misjudgment of the flight of the ball by Yeimar and a ripping header into goal by Dinenno. At the 70th minute at 7000 feet the Sounders were the ones looking like the fitter group, Schmetzer only making his first sub in the 87th minute. This group mustered all of their combined fitness, persistence, and experience to earn the result and make the the 2nd leg at home all square and very winnable on their own terms.
Scoring the goals straight certainly would have been preferable, but this moment was calling for something more. Forcing a defensive mistake in the box is a time worn functional approach that lacks glamour but often produces results (see Jorgihno as Chelsea's leading scorer in 2020/2021 PL and current 2nd place scorer in 2021/2022 PL). Regardless of VAR's actual application (or non-application) in any given game, Sounders ability to keep it on the ground while passing near and in the 18-yard box is ideal for putting the referee on the field to these kind of decisions more often than not. Aside from penalties we've had a number of very close-in free kicks this year as well. Outside of Raul's doorstep miss, Nico's direct effort from a dead ball on the edge of the right side of the box in the first half was perhaps Sounders most compelling shot of the night that wasn't a PK.
Historically the Sounders have been the victims in these situations, and particularly in CONCACAF competition with the game often getting away from them at a certain point. We've certainly had a few flubs leading to PK's in 2022, but this year more often than not it's been the other team struggling and often failing to properly contain us in the box. Even at 2 goals down on Wednesday the game was open enough that scoring a goal never felt out of reach, and that proved to be the case.
Part of being a modern Sounders supporter is appreciating how this club and team operates as an ethical actor. (This organizational contrast has unfortunately been loud and clear these past few years/months/weeks/days.) This ethic has extended to the types of players we've courted and tried to integrate and resulted in a group that fans can get behind as humans. We don't need to play dirty to win and shithousing is not soccer (Blas Perez I am looking at you!). I like this ideal. I think playing good soccer is always worth pursuing and should be the first order of business. Should be.
Given the stature of Sounders in both league and confederation play now, this utopian view ignores the target that's painted on our back IN EVERY GAME. Watching the Rave Green in this current iteration is different because of that target and the intensity this draws from every one of our opponents. Getting up in the morning to prove your mettle against the best is why these players do what they do. Beating the Sounders means something to every single team every single time they step on the field. This means the kitchen sink. Every game.
Sounders brings out the frustration in other teams fans just by being. Being relentlessly good that is. Like we used to feel about the Galaxy. In so many ways Sounders have set the bar and continue to set the bar year after year. The challenges of being atop the heap year-after-year bring perhaps a unique set of Champagne problems other MLS teams can't claim, but it's also a set of problems they don't have the option of looking away from or moving past if they want to keep their perch in a league built for maintaining parity.
Luck is mostly not random. In soccer, just as in life, what we perceive as 'luck' is more often than not an accumulation of hard work AND being in the right place at the right time to draw on that work.
Cristian Roldan's pressing into the box in the waning moments of the Final's 1st leg and his subsequent actions to force a video review epitomizes this team's expanded understanding of that truism in 2022, and their ability to call on every tool in the shed and every ounce of competitiveness in the most heightened of moments to earn a result.
Our veteran captain was taunting their veteran captain after scoring two pens in his face!
We've never seen a Sounders team like this.
Lumen Field IS the right place. Now IS the right time.
See you there Wednesday.