SEATTLE — The smile stretching across Kelyn Rowe’s face could not have possibly been wider. Clad in a green-and-blue checkered, faux-fur, thigh-length coat; goggles resting on the top of his head; shirtless and drenched in champagne; the Seattle-area native looked every bit like someone who was living his best life.
If all had gone exactly to plan in Wednesday’s Concacaf Champions League final, there was a pretty good chance that Rowe would have never seen the field. Just a day earlier, he had been considered questionable due to a nagging injury, but a thigh contusion to starting left back Nouhou had forced Rowe into about 80 minutes of action.
Once the momentary shock of being forced onto the field so early wore off, Rowe quickly settled into the game. He connected passes, won his duels and mostly avoided mistakes. There was no single highlight that stood out from Rowe’s performance, but that in itself was telling. Rowe was one of two first-half injury substitutes, both costing the Sounders key starters. It didn’t matter.
Even with a metaphorical hand tied behind their back, the Sounders dominated most of the game. The 3-0 win over Liga MX’s Pumas UNAM made it 5-2 on aggregate, giving the CCL crown to an MLS team for the first time in history and by the widest winning margin. It was a fitting achievement for a team that has been raising expectations and setting new bars for success from the moment it launched.
The CCL trophy is the eighth major title the Sounders have won since entering the league in 2009, three more than any other U.S.-based team in that time. Including the five league trophies they won during their USL era, the Sounders can boast of 13 titles since 1994, which ties them with D.C. United for the most all-time among professional soccer teams in Canada and the United States.
“This is a club that loves to win,” Rowe said, radiating positivity. “I was on the bench for the boom-boom-clap and I got chills. I had a big smile on my face. Every time I play here, it’s like a dream come true. It’s my backyard, it could be 10 people and I’d be happy because my friends and family are all around.”
A sellout crowd of nearly 69,000 in the stands. A picture-perfect Pacific Northwest spring night. A local boy returning home to play an unexpected but important role in the biggest soccer game in Seattle history. The final goal coming while fans had turned their phones into flashlights, creating a surreal glow inside the stadium. A history-making trophy lift. The Seattle-born coach, standing off to the side, just watching his players enjoy the moment and basking in the celebrations around him. They could be scenes from a too-good-to-be-true movie. It all felt almost pre-ordained.
Yes that’s three i’s in champions. I’ll let you speculate when these were made. pic.twitter.com/lEJTULPz81— Jeremiah Oshan (@JeremiahOshan) May 5, 2022
But if you needed a reminder that nothing in sports is actually inevitable, you only needed to take a closer look at those goggles Rowe was wearing. Stitched into the side was the phrase “CHAMPIIIONS.” Yes, with three I’s.
The goggles were apparently recycled from 2020, when the Sounders were hoping — maybe even planning — to win their third MLS Cup in five years. They did not. They did not even come especially close, falling 3-0 to the Columbus Crew, the biggest blowout in MLS championship game history.
The ghosts of 2020 were never publicly addressed during the buildup to Wednesday’s final, probably because they didn’t need to be. Nine of the Sounders’ starters on Wednesday also started that game against the Crew, and 16 players from that year’s roster remain on this team. They knew every result must be settled on the pitch.
No one on the Sounders understands that better than Cristian Roldan. He has now played in eight cup finals for club and country. Four times, he’s gone home empty-handed.
“It’s difficult to get to a final, and when you lose a final, it’s devastating,” he said. “You don’t get remembered for what you did. Today, for me, to be able to win it, it means a lot. I think I was like 50% in finals in my career. It’s always difficult to get to finals, so to win it and be on the positive side of winning finals is a great feeling and one of the most important wins of my career.”
The vibes on gameday were immaculate. There was a buoyancy in the thousands of fans gathered around the stadium even hours before kickoff. Pumas fans were there in numbers, and I only witnessed positive interactions with Sounders fans. One Pumas fan told me some Sounders fans bought he and his friend a round of beer when he said they had traveled from Mexico City for the game (never mind that they actually live here). Practically everyone I’ve talked to can share a story about a positive interaction with a Pumas fan, some who became convinced the Sounders would be their segundo equipo after Wednesday’s display.
Positivity was everywhere, anticipation was high.
Inside the stadium it was more of the same. Fans seemed to settle into their seats earlier than normal, ready to get on with history. The ECS tifo was simple but straightforward: “Kings of Cascadia/Rulers of MLS/Next: Concacaf.” Sounders legend Chad Marshall had the honor of doing the customary “Scarves Up” call right before kickoff, slamming a beer to punctuate his command and following it up with a second one.
The roar at kickoff was as loud as I’d ever heard for the start of a match. Even without a full-stadium rendition of “Bluest Skies” I was still impressed.
The positivity got a cold splash of reality about 10 minutes in when Nouhou got kicked in the leg and could not continue. Rowe replaced him.
About 20 minutes after that, the Sounders suffered another blow when João Paulo planted awkwardly. He was stretchered off the field with what was later confirmed to be a season-ending ACL injury. He was replaced by 16-year-old Obed Vargas. Cristian Roldan gathered together his teammates and made sure they remained positive.
The vibes were in danger. A win did not feel inevitable anymore.
The Sounders barely missed a beat. They continued to press for the opener and were rewarded just before halftime when Albert Rusnák made a slicing run into the box, found Xavier Arreaga with a cross, and the centerback laid it off softly to Raúl Ruidíaz. The striker’s shot deflected off the hand of a Pumas defender — for what would have been a handball and penalty — and settled into the goal.
The stadium erupted. Ruidíaz jumped the ad boards and embraced the Defiance and Academy players who were in a field-level suite. His teammates chased after him, showering him with love. Vibes restored.
The second half was not easy. Pumas created danger and actually came reasonably close to finding an equalizer, but there really did seem to be an inevitability about how the rest of the game would play out.
Pumas has been playing two games a week for three months and you could see it in their legs. The tackles were a little later and with less control. You could see gaps opening.
The Sounders pounced in the 80th minute when Rusnák again got the counter-attack started with some clever dribbling. Five passes later, Ruidíaz had his second and the stadium erupted again. Nicolás Lodeiro added a third for good measure. They were removed, along with Jordan Morris, in the 88th minute and I’m not sure the standing ovation ever stopped.
The Sounders had achieved history. They had achieved a certain degree of immortality.
“I’m super, super proud of how this team performed throughout this tournament,” Schmetzer said in the postgame press conference. “A lot of people were asking about the subtle pressure in front of a big crowd to perform; I think they passed that test. They passed it with flying colors.”
I moved to Seattle in the summer of 2009, just as the Sounders were closing in on their first U.S. Open Cup. My first real Sounders experience was going to the George & Dragon to watch the final and being blown away at the level of support. I was hooked.
The next season, I started covering the Sounders for this website. After working in the journalism business for over a decade, it was the first time I felt anything like a genuine connection to my readers. The promise of journalists is that we are the eyes and ears of the community, but I have never felt as vital in that role as I have covering the Sounders. I read almost every comment someone makes on my stories, and try to reply to every message I receive. If a reader has a question, I do my best to find them an answer, oftentimes to the exasperation of the Sounders media staff.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve often wondered why we do this. I do genuinely believe that it’s about the journey. I’m not sure I’ve appreciated that quite as much as I have over the past couple weeks. I won’t try to convince anyone that this was somehow better than the 2019 MLS Cup, but it was definitely different and special in its own way.
It wasn’t just traveling to Mexico City that I found so amazing, it was the interactions with Mexican fans and journalists. I came away with an appreciation and understanding of their sporting culture that I never had before.
Ever since returning from Mexico, I’ve been battling some stomach issues. I’m glad I didn’t let that keep me home. I met tons of readers and colleagues during the last few days, and it’s driven home the reality that what we have here is truly special.
It is undeniably true that Sounders fans can be insufferable at times. Annoying as that may be to outsiders, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I don’t think anyone involved with the Sounders would either.
Lots of sports figures pay lip-service to their fans. They tell them they love them and how important they are. Few show it the way the Sounders do. Whether it’s bonafide legend Kasey Keller addressing ECS after the rest of the stadium has cleared out, Stefan Frei walking onto the ferry like an average Joe or the way Garth Lagerwey interacts with seemingly every fan who wants to share their ideas, the level of accessibility here is really off the charts. To their credit, the Sounders also seem to understand that is part of what contributes to their relevancy, which in turn allows them to attract better players. It’s a virtuous cycle that I believe will continue to push this club forward.
The thing about sports is that the journey never really stops. There’s only so much time to bask in the glow of victory before turning your attention to whatever’s next. That’s especially true with this trophy, since there’s still two-thirds of a season to play and three more major trophies still up for grabs.
Momentum demands that we look ahead. Still, it’s worth remembering that this week will always be a time upon which we look back.
Or in the words of Lagerwey when he ascended the capo stand on Wednesday: “IMMORTALITY!!!! We join sports, we play sports, we watch sports to do things nobody can take away. We will forever be the first.”
IMMORTALITYYYYY pic.twitter.com/b54kYYY4mx— Seattle Sounders FC (@SoundersFC) May 5, 2022