Chances are that if you’ve made this far, you already know how big of a deal today’s Concacaf Champions League match potentially is for both the Seattle Sounders and MLS. A win wouldn’t just be the crowning achievement for the league’s most successful team over the past decade-plus, but a clear and real sign that MLS is closing the gap with Liga MX in a meaningful way.
But even if you already understand all of that, there are a few things that could have easily slipped through the cracks. Here’s everything you need to know about tonight’s game to be fully up to speed (and hopefully able to impress some of your buddies):
We’re basically starting from scratch
Thanks to the lack of an away-goals tiebreaker and the fact that the first leg ended in a tie, this is effectively a one-game final. Whoever is ahead at the end of regulation will be the winner and if it’s tied, they’ll go to overtime. If it’s still tied, we’ll settle this thing in the most excruciating way possible: penalty shootout. That’s possibly bad for everyone’s nerves, but it could not possibly be easier to understand.
This is about ending Liga MX hegemony
It’s not just that Liga MX has dominated this tournament since it first adopted this basic format in 2008-09, it’s the degree to which that’s true. Of the 13 previous finals, nine of them have been all-Liga MX affairs. Even in the CONCACAF Champions Cup-era that preceded this one, you need to go all the way back to 2005 to find the last winner from a different league (Costa Rica’s Saprissa beat Pumas that year). MLS teams have come reasonably close to breaking this streak of futility — believe it or not, all four of them tied or won their road legs only to fall short at home — but were never legitimately considered favorites the way the Sounders are in this one.
Everyone is healthy
Unlike seemingly every other final the Sounders have played under Brian Schmetzer, there are no lingering health concerns. Centerback Yeimar Gomez Andrade was the only regular starter who had been on the mend, but after logging 90 minutes in the first leg, he’s hopefully shaken off any lingering rust. Tonight’s lineup is probably the most predictable one of the year and looks almost exactly like the one we were all drooling over at the start of the season.
The most exciting part of this group is the Sounders have an advantage at virtually every position, and where they don’t it’s more of a toss-up. Unlike many previous versions of this matchup, the Sounders also have a pretty good advantage on the bench as well. While Pumas will mostly be relying upon younger players, the Sounders will have veteran options like Fredy Montero and Will Bruin (who have combined for about 250 career goals), as well as spark plugs like Jimmy Medranda and Obed Vargas. This is all borne out by Transfmarkt’s estimated market value data, where the Sounders have a roughly $20M advantage over Pumas.
Watch out for Juan Ignacio Dinenno
One of those toss-up positions might be at striker. I think I’ll take Raúl Ruidíaz, if for no other reason than he’s performed more consistently over a longer period of time, but no one has been more effective in this year’s tournament than Pumas’ Juan Ignacio Dinenno. The Argentine striker has scored nine goals in seven games, including two in the first leg against the Sounders and followed that up with a brace off the bench in Pumas’ final regular-season game over the weekend. He’s an absolute handful and is probably going to get moved during the summer transfer window — possibly to MLS — for a hefty transfer fee. If you’re looking for one reason to be worried, Dinenno is it.
Pumas’ best centerback returns
Arturo Ortiz has been Pumas’ best centerback throughout the season, but missed the first leg due to yellow-card accumulation. Although he left Sunday’s match a little early with an apparent injury, all signs point to him being fully fit for this one (or least planning to start). Ortiz is especially dangerous on set pieces, so he’s another one the Sounders will need to watch on restarts.
But they’ll be missing a key piece, too
Most observers consider Alan Mozo to be Pumas’ best overall player. The right back is an absolute terror getting forward and promised to be the guy most capable of swinging in crosses to Dinenno. Alas, he left the first leg with an apparent sprained knee and, although he’s not been officially ruled out, no one seems to be expecting him to play.
The two most likely replacements are a pair of youngsters, Jesus Rivas and Jose Galindo. Rivas is who spelled Mozo off the bench in Leg 1 and delivered the cross for Dinenno’s second goal. Galindo, though, is more of a natural defender and started on the weekend. The direction Andrés Lillini goes will say a lot about his gameplan.
Pumas’ manager is a bit of a vibes-lord
If Brian Schmetzer has a rough equivalent in Liga MX, it might be Lillini. From a relatively inauspicious playing career to coaching career spent mostly behind the scenes, Lillini got his chance when his predecessor resigned on the eve of the restarted 2020 season. Lillini has a ton of experience with Pumas’ younger players, having run the academy and reserve team for several years prior to his appointment, and players seem to love him. Performing their best when seemingly everyone has counted them out has become Pumas’ calling card under Lillini, most recently exemplified by their comeback from 3-0 down against the New England Revolution in this tournament and qualifying for the playoffs on the final day of the recently concluded Clausura season.
This might be even bigger for Pumas
As you may or may not know, Pumas are one of Mexico’s historic giants. Unlike their quatros gigantes brethren, however, they’ve fallen a bit farther from their perch. Their last title of any kind was way back in 2011 and they haven’t won a Concacaf title since 1989. No one in Mexico expected them to be here, but winning would be an absolutely massive accomplishment for them. They won’t be lacking for motivation.
Things got a little heated in Leg 1
I wouldn’t say there’s lingering bad blood between these two teams, but we came reasonably close to an international incident after Leg 1. It all started when Pumas goalkeeper Alfredo Talavera tried to get in Nicolás Lodeiro’s head by delaying the first of his two penalties. Lodeiro responded by yelling an expletive at the veteran goalkeeper after scoring. The situation basically repeated itself following the second ultimately successful penalty. After the final whistle, the situation progressed to the point there were several minor dustups as the teams were exiting the field. I wouldn’t say any of it was particularly scary, but it does add interesting subtext to this game.
Rested and ready to go
Thanks to MLS, the Sounders were able to move their weekend match in order to focus all their energy and preparation on tonight. It was actually the second time in about a month MLS has moved a league game in order to help the Sounders in CCL play. Liga MX did Pumas no such favors. Since the start of CCL play, Pumas have basically been playing two games a week. That’s 21 matches in about three months, and they’ve got a playoff game this upcoming weekend. They weren’t the deepest team to begin with, but there simply have to be some tired legs, especially after taking the longest flight of their season.
There’s going to be a record crowd on hand
The Sounders aren’t going to beat their own attendance record of 69,274 they set in the 2019 MLS Cup, but there should still be more than 68,000 in attendance. That will easily eclipse the old CCL record and will hopefully set a bar others aspire to break in coming years. If you’re wondering why the Sounders won’t be able to break that record, you can blame Concacaf. Pushing closer to 70,000 would have required a level of coordination and cooperation that just wasn’t going to happen for this game.
A good chunk of those fans will be rooting for Pumas
In addition to the 1,600 seats sold directly to Pumas supporters — they’ll be in the northeast corner of the third deck — there will likely be several thousand others sprinkled throughout Lumen Field. Anyone seriously worried about Pumas fans making this feel like a road game is simply fear-mongering, but I do think they’ll be heard anytime their players make a big play. Either way, my experience with Pumas fans — and frankly all Liga MX fans who have come to Sounders games — has been 100 percent positive, and I think their presence will give a different feel to the match. If all goes well, maybe we’ll even win over a few of them.
This could be one of the most watched MLS games, ever
If you ever find yourself wondering if this is all a bit of a distraction, allow me to remind you that the first leg was watched by nearly 1.5 million people in the United States alone. Granted, the overwhelming majority of those people watched on Spanish-language channels UníMas and TUDN, but that’s still on par with the combined average audiences for the past five MLS Cups. Given that the stakes for tonight’s game are even bigger, it hardly seems a stretch for the audience to expand beyond 2 million, which would push it into air MLS hasn’t tasted since 1998.
Cats don’t like plastic
I tend to think a well-maintained artificial turf field is superior to a mediocre grass one, but it’s undeniable that plastic plays differently than the real stuff. Pumas rarely get to test that. This will be just the third time this year and the fifth time since the start of 2019 that Pumas have played on artificial turf. It’s at least somewhat notable that Pumas have not scored a single goal in any of those games, and were outscored 4-0 by Tijuana and the New England Revolution in their two most recent games on turf.
Winner gets a spot in the Club World Cup
I’m not someone who considers CCL as a sort of qualifier for the Club World Cup, but it should be said that it is a nice side effect. We still don’t know when, where or even the format of the next Club World Cup, but everyone insists it’s happening and the winner of this game will be invited. At the very least, that comes with a hefty cash bonus, and maybe even the possibility to square off against some of the world’s biggest teams in a “meaningful” game.
Failing to win would be a massive blow
Mainly for all the reasons explained above, the circumstances surrounding an MLS team in a CCL final have never been more advantageous. You have to assume that it’s inevitable that an MLS team will eventually break through and win this, but if the Sounders can’t do this now you have to really wonder how far off that day might be.
But that’s a fixed mindset, and we strive for growth here. Put in a more optimistic way, this is a MASSIVE opportunity. Through both their play and atmosphere, the Sounders and their fans have the potential to change the way American soccer is viewed in both this country and the region. I’m not saying any of that will guarantee an overnight change, but for MLS to maximize on its potential, success in this tournament is an absolute must.
Simply put, we’ve got a chance to be a part of history. Let’s make the most of it.