Record Makers

Sometimes even 68,000 home supporters can sound uncertain. Back in May, the Seattle Sounders walked onto the pitch in the second leg of the CONCACAF Champions League against Tigres of Mexico with an incredible opportunity and a ton of weight on their shoulders. After securing a 2-2 draw in Mexico City, the Sounders looked to end the curse that had afflicted not just their team but all Major League Soccer sides when playing in the continent’s club competition. Despite the nerves and the weight of history on their backs, Seattle took down Tigres 3-0 to earn top honors and perhaps send another sign that the battle for continental supremacy may be changing.

When it comes to any tournament final there is a strange mix of excitement, expectation, nerves, and uncertainty. Although most finals seem to have an equal level of mix of all four, until this season MLS sides seem to only exhibit the last two. Prior to Seattle’s triumph, no MLS side had won the CONCACAF Champions League. In fact, no side out of Mexico had actually won the continent’s top competition in its current format. Multiple MLS sides have come close, losing in the semifinals and finals in a multitude of heartbreaking ways.

Seattle themselves aren’t immune to the misfortunes-since joining MLS in 2009 the Cascadia side has made the CCL Quarterfinals 3 times and the semifinals in 2012. They even made the finals of the 2021 Leagues Cup, a competition set up between the two rival leagues. In that final, the Sounders dropped a 1-0 lead in the second-half to eventually fall 3-2 to Leon.

That experience seemed to push the Sounders during this year’s CCL. That the side crushed Leon 4-1 in the Quarterfinals seemed apt given their lack of success in that phase and against their opponent. Fredy Montero, who in his six seasons and two tenures with Seattle has witnessed many of the club’s highs and lows, scored two major goals to lift the side into the semifinals. The side was given a bit of reprieve against New York Red Bulls, but against UNAM the old narratives were raised once again. That the New England Revolution and CF Montreal had both fallen to Liga MX opponents during this window certainly did not help.

Despite MLS’ cursed history in the tournament, Seattle defied expectations and landed on the mountaintop. Now the question is: How can other MLS sides repeat this feat? Having their big name players take the tournament seriously would be a good start. While the home result sealed the CCL title, it wouldn’t have been possible without Uruguayan international Nicolas Lodeiro’s two goals in the first leg in Mexico. The same with MLS Goalkeeper of the Year’s Stefan Frei standing on his head to earn the critical draw. For years, MLS sides have seen the CCL as high risk, low reward. Perhaps with Seattle’s win that may change.

Of course, there is also the question of how Liga MX and the Mexican Football Association will take the result. Although it could be perceived as a one-off, one should also remember that the Mexican FA lumps intercontinental club results with national team form. That the Mexican national team have lost both the Nations League and Gold Cup in recent years as well as failed to qualify for the upcoming U20 World Cup should give Mexican football supporters some worries. While MLS still has the label of a retirement league, there are cracks within that narrative. As salaries continue to increase in MLS and should the MLS wins in club competitions continue to mount, there may be a changing of the guard in North America.

After years of waiting, Sounders and MLS fans can finally enjoy being at the top of North America football. While making the Club World Cup is a huge accomplishment, the statement that it makes it to their Mexican counterparts may perhaps be a far bigger prize.

By: Sean Maslin

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