The significance of Wednesday night’s winner-takes-all Concacaf Champions League Final second leg at Lumen Field (10 pm ET | FS1, TUDN) especially resonates with Garth Lagerwey.
Now the general manager and president of soccer at Seattle Sounders FC, Lagerwey was the key architect of Real Salt Lake’s rise some dozen-or-so years ago, including their run to the 2011 CCL Final against Liga MX’s CF Monterrey.
The Claret-and-Cobalt lost that series 3-2 on aggregate, falling 1-0 in Leg 2 at Rio Tinto Stadium behind Chilean striker Humberto Suazo’s goal just before halftime. They, just like Seattle last week vs. Pumas UNAM, had drawn 2-2 in Mexico in comeback fashion.
With a record-breaking crowd expected at Seattle’s home stadium, Lagerwey believes the Sounders are well-prepared to change the outcome.
“At that time, when you're playing against Monterrey whose budget is five X what ours was, maybe more, and then have Suazo and they have Aldo [de Nigris] and they have some guys who are just incredible players relative to where MLS was at that time, that was a David-Goliath scenario,” Lagerwey told Extratime from Seattle earlier this week.
“… What's striking is how different that fact pattern is now. This is a level playing field. The payrolls are relatively similar between us and Pumas. We now have guys that have played in World Cups and Copa Libertadores and Copa Americas and won those competitions. You have that talent, not in one guy [or] one DP, but you've got it all over the roster. You have multiple guys that are going to play in the World Cup.
“It's a fun exercise in that when you compare that 2011 team, that first finalist, to the 2022 Sounders and look at how far the league's come. I think we spend some time saying we want to go faster, we want to go faster, we want to get better, but in 11 years we have come an awful long way.”
That spending conversation has shaded MLS and Liga MX meetings at this stage, with RSL’s shortcoming the start of four CCL Final losses in league history as the continental club crown and a FIFA Club World Cup spot prove elusive.
But Lagerwey sees the gap narrowing, too, with Toronto FC (2018) and LAFC (2020) both reaching finals across the past half-decade. And there are bigger-picture elements at play, in Lagerwey’s view, especially as the reimagined Leagues Cup arrives in 2023 and these bordering leagues pause their respective seasons for one month during the summer. There are US men’s national team implications, too.
“I think you're really seeing potentially a more competitive Liga MX-MLS interaction, and one of the things that's really cool for our team, when you look at maybe how we've been doing this, we've beaten three Mexican teams in the last 12 months,” Lagerwey said. “If you look at [beating] Tigres and Santos Laguna and Leon between Leagues Cup and Champions League, those experiences didn't happen five years ago, 10 years ago. So I think it's pretty incredible that our guys are as well-prepared that they can be.
“Then, look, I think it's an exciting time to be an American soccer fan. We qualify with the youngest team in this cycle to reach the World Cup and obviously we're hosting in 2026. One of the things that's really resonated in this week has been with the entire Pacific Northwest community, with all of Seattle, to say this is our last chance to impress FIFA that we should be a host city for the 2026 World Cup.
“So I think there's all these global things, all these bigger-picture things that flow together into Wednesday and they do make it the biggest game in club history and I think one of the more important games potentially, if you win, in league history.”
This iteration of the Sounders are also potentially MLS’s best chance on the CCL front, with USMNT players Cristian Roldan and Jordan Morris, as well as Brazilian midfielder Joao Paulo, remarkably not DPs. Those tags are reserved for midfielders Nicolas Lodeiro and Albert Rusnak, then striker Raul Ruidiaz. The list goes on, with established internationals – Cameroon’s Nouhou, El Salvador’s Alex Roldan, Colombia’s Yeimar and Ecuador’s Xavier Arreaga – all throughout the backline. Veteran goalkeeper Stefan Frei, of course, has remained an anchor.
Lagerwey and sporting director Craig Waibel deserve ample credit for building a deep team, combining veterans and a growing academy pipeline.
“Since '18, we've really had this [core] and we've tried to add one piece a year without subtracting,” Lagerwey. “We really do feel like this is the best group that we've had and we've been very methodical about it, very strategic to build to this moment. I can't say the last five years is all about winning the 2022 Champions League, it wasn't that specific. But it was can we get better every single year before we get too old and take a shot at something like this, something really cool like this?”
Now, it’s about finishing the job on home turf. Win and Seattle’s lengthy list of accomplishments only increases.
“This is going to be ecstasy or heartbreak,” Lagerwey said. “It's immortality or confined to the dustbin of history. It's definitely a polarized outcome depending on that.”
“Now we've got to do what we did in MLS Cup 2019,” he added. “We've got to come out in front of what'll be a sold-out crowd, I think in excess of 65,000 people, and bring it home.”