How Seattle Sounders built club that won CONCACAF Champions League

How Seattle Sounders built club that won CONCACAF Champions League

By Doug McIntyre
FOX Sports Soccer Writer

The Seattle Sounders made history Wednesday, when they became the first Major League Soccer team to win the CONCACAF Champions League with an emphatic 3-0 rout of Mexico’s UNAM Pumas.

In front of a raucous crowd of almost 69,000 fans at Seattle’s Lumen Field, Sounders forward Raúl Ruidíaz gave the hosts a lead they wouldn’t relinquish in the final minute of the first half.

Sounders take 1-0 lead on Raúl Ruidíaz’s 45th-minute goal

Sounders take 1-0 lead on Raúl Ruidíaz's 45th-minute goal

Seattle takes a 1-0 lead over Pumas in the CONCACAF Champions League final on this Raúl Ruidíaz goal coming off a deflection from the defender.

The Peruvian striker added another goal late in the second before Nicolás Lodeiro put the outcome beyond doubt with two minutes left to play.

Seattle — which tied Pumas 2-2 last week in Mexico City in the first leg of the home-and-home, total-goals series — snapped Liga MX’s streak of 16 consecutive CONCACAF titles. The Sounders also advanced to the next FIFA Club World Cup, becoming the first MLS team to compete in that event.

Nicolás Lodeiro adds to Seattle’s lead in closing moments

Nicolás Lodeiro adds to Seattle's lead in closing moments

Nicolás Lodeiro puts the rebound shot into the back of the net in the 87th minute to give Seattle a 3-0 lead.

Here are three thoughts on Seattle’s unprecedented victory.

1. It took the Sounders, MLS’ best-run club, to make history.

Given the difference in payrolls between Mexico’s free-spending top clubs and their northern counterparts, which are bound by a comparatively minuscule salary cap, any MLS team was going to need a perfect storm of circumstances to claim the trophy.

The domestic league got it in the Sounders. Under longtime owner Adrian Hanuer, whip-smart general manager Garth Lagerwey and classy coach Brian Schmetzer, the Sounders methodically and intentionally established themselves as the class of the club game in the United States by doing things the right way. Their competence and stability have allowed Seattle to make four domestic finals and win two MLS Cups, a U.S. Open Cup and the Supporters’ Shield since 2014. They also play in as savvy a soccer market as there is in the U.S., drawing an average of 40,000 fans for league games.

“The passion is so strong in the city for our game,” goalkeeper Stefan Frei said afterward. “It’s the reason why we have such a high standard.”

Since arriving from small-market Real Salt Lake in 2015, Lagerwey has targeted the Champions League. He slowly built the deepest roster in MLS around Frei, University of Washington product Cristian Roldan and Seattle-born Jordan Morris. Lagerwey also lured Lodeiro, Ruidíaz, Albert Rusnak, other foreign-born stars and proven MLS role players to the Pacific Northwest.

While other clubs chased glamorous names, Seattle got more value by recruiting talented, high-character, lesser-known players looking for a long-term home and something to prove. 

It worked.

“Raul is a killer, in a good way,” said Schmetzer, who, along with team owner Hanuer, is a Seattle native. “And you can call Nico a franchise player.” 

With Ruidíaz and Lodeiro leading the way, the Sounders made two of the past three MLS Cups, winning in 2019, and reached the Leagues Cup final last season. That experience helped throughout Seattle’s run to regional glory.

The Sounders were also fortunate. Pumas isn’t close to as good as the Tigres team that beat LAFC in the 2020 finale or nearly as good as the mid-2010s Club America juggernaut that scored four goals in the second half of the second leg to beat Montreal in 2015. The Sounders had to go through only one Liga MX foe, Leon, before the decisive series.

Sounders celebrate first CONCACAF Champions League title

Sounders celebrate first CONCACAF Champions League title

Seattle beat Pumas 5-2 on aggregate, with help from Raúl Ruidíaz’s two goals in the 45th and 80th minutes. Nicolás Lodeiro chipped in with a late goal in the 88th minute.

Still, Seattle’s triumph is no fluke. They had to sub out two key contributors to injury — midfielder João Paulo, whom Schmetzer said has a “possible ACL tear,” and defender Nouhou Tolo — early in Wednesday’s contest and, despite a furious Pumas onslaught just after halftime, didn’t miss a beat. 

More than 20 years after the last MLS team topped CONCACAF, the Sounders are worthy champs.

“It’s been a team effort to push this over the line,” Schmetzer said. “I can’t understate it: This is a hard tournament to win, and we’ve accomplished it.”

2. A CONCACAF title for MLS was long overdue.

Under this competition’s previous format, an MLS team earned regional bragging rights twice in the league’s first five seasons. D.C. United won the old CONCACAF Champions Cup in 1998. The LA Galaxy repeated the feat three years later. 

No MLS side would so much as reach the final for another decade, in large part because of a change to the traditional home-and-home model. The new “league” model required American and Canadian teams to meet Mexican opponents on their own turf. When the Galaxy and D.C. triumphed more than 20 years ago, the entire tournament was staged in their own cities.

Lately, though, MLS has gotten closer. This year marked the fourth time an MLS squad reached the final since 2015 and the third time since 2018. The American or Canadian team lost each time — but not by much. Toronto FC even won the second leg against Chivas in Guadalajara four years ago, only to succumb from the penalty spot.

LAFC outplayed Tigres in 2020, were 18 minutes from glory and still lost. On that night, it seemed like an MLS team might never win CONCACAF again.

But win Seattle did. Despite the disadvantages MLS teams still face against their better-funded foes from south of the border, this is tangible proof that they are closing the gap.

“This was going to happen at some point,” Schmetzer said. “I think there’s going to be more success following our success.”

3. The Sounders aren’t done yet.

It will take many months before most MLS fans can appreciate the coolest part of Seattle’s triumph: competing against the world’s best at the FIFA Club World Cup.

No MLS team has ever taken part in the event; it didn’t exist when D.C. won the CONCACAF Champions Cup in 1998 and was canceled in 2001, denying the Galaxy the chance to play a group-stage game against Real Madrid at the famed Estadio Bernabeu.

Dates for the 2023 event haven’t been announced yet. But whenever it happens, most MLS fans — perhaps even a few from the rival Portland Timbers — will be hoping the Sounders can pull an upset or two.

One of the leading soccer journalists in North America, Doug McIntyre has covered United States men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer with ESPN and Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.

Get more from MLS Follow your favorites to get information about games, news and more.

in this topic

Soccer - CCL - Seattle Sounders FC vs. Pumas - 5/5/2022 Soccer – CCL – Seattle Sounders FC vs. Pumas – 5/5/2022