TUKWILA, Wash. — Cristian Roldan has played in four MLS Cups, two Gold Cup finals and five World Cup qualifiers during his eight seasons as a professional. It should not be lost on anyone that he calls Wednesday’s Concacaf Champions League semifinal one of the “biggest games” of his career should not be lost on anyone.
“That’s how I look at it personally,” Roldan said following Tuesday’s training session. “No one in MLS history has won this tournament. I take it pretty heavy and want to be the first to win it.”
Standing in their way is none other than defending MLS Cup champions New York City FC, the other half of the first-ever all-MLS CCL semifinal. The winner of this two-legged series will become just the fifth MLS team to play in this tournament’s final and will have a chance to end Liga MX’s complete hegemony over Concacaf that stretches back to 2005.
Roldan seemed almost excited at the prospect of facing such a worthy opponent.
Roldan even listed off several reasons: “It’s nice to know that you’re playing a rival that 1. Deserves to be here; 2. Has really good players, and is known for good players; and 3. Is struggling right now. Kicking a team when they’re down is something we want to do.”
NYCFC come into the first leg of the semifinals in a bit of a mini-slump. After starting the season 4-1-1 and outscoring their opponents 13-2 — including three wins in CCL — the Pigeons have lost three straight while getting outscored 8-3. The game that started that slide was a 4-2 loss in the second leg of their CCL quarterfinal against Comunicaciones, in which NYCFC advanced on away goals after having come in with a 3-1 lead after the home leg.
Even with their recent struggles, it’s not hard to understand how NYCFC won MLS Cup less than six months ago. Taty Castellanos is one of the league’s best strikers and has already tallied four goals and three assists in CCL play; Maxi Moralez has been one of the league’s most productive No. 10s since joining NYCFC in 2017; and 19-year-old Talles Magno is one of the league’s top attacking prospects. Defensively, NYCFC is anchored by regular USMNT call-up Sean Johnson and a centerback pairing of Thiago Martins and Alexander Callens.
As much talent as NYCFC have, the Sounders should have the experience advantage. Just about everyone in their likely starting XI has played extensive minutes in the MLS and particularly in two-leg playoffs. Prior to this year, NYCFC had only played five such series in their entire history, losing all but one of them by an aggregate score of 23-10. In that same time, the Sounders had played nine such series, advancing five times and outscoring their opponents 31-21. They’ve won their two previous CCL rounds by an aggregate score of 9-1 this year.
“If you go back a few years to when we had two-legged playoff series in MLS, there were certain tactics and things you thought about differently than a one-game knockout playoff-type situation,” Sounders head coach Schmetzer said. “So whether it’s an international competition versus an MLS club or whether it’s a Mexican club or Honduran club, it doesn’t really matter, it’s still a two-legged series. So there are some nuances there that we have experience in, and I think that will certainly help us.”
One thing the Sounders have come to appreciate is the importance of winning their home legs, which they’ve done in all seven of those successful two-legged series.
“Sometimes when you go into high-pressure moments, you try to change things up or make it about emotion,” Roldan said. “But it’s about understanding what made us good, what got us here. Being strong at home is something we’ll have to do.”
- Although it’s likely still too early for him to play, that Yeimar Gomez Andrade was at least able to do some light jogging at Tuesday’s training session was a positive development.
- Concacaf recently confirmed that Fredy Montero is now tied for the most goals among MLS players in CCL play. Montero scored his 10th career CCL goal in the previous round against León. Nine of those goals have come with the Sounders, three of them this year.