Injuries robbed the Seattle Sounders of key Designated Players Raul Ruidiaz and Nico Lodeiro, among others, as they welcomed 2021 Liga MX Apertura runners-up Club Leon to Lumen Field for Tuesday night’s Concacaf Champions League quarterfinal first leg on the back of consecutive losses in their first two weeks of the 2022 MLS season.
It was hardly an ideal situation. Some would say disastrous.
But the Rave Green made light work of all that with a truly heavyweight performance against La Fiera. Summoning an awe-inspiring display of ferocious team defending and surgical counterattacking that sliced their Mexican adversaries into ribbons, SSFC rode a first-half brace from Ruidiaz’s veteran backup Fredy Montero before a late capper from Jordan Morris put Seattle in a solid 3-0 position ahead of next week’s second leg in Guanajuato.
“There's been a lot of talk about not winning in 11 games going back into last season, a bunch of stuff that was on various publications, sites, all of that. I still believe in this team,” declared head coach Brian Schmetzer, who flashed both defiance and charm in his postgame press conference, taking care to note that his team knows this series is far from over considering the enduring strength of Liga MX clubs’ home-field advantage.
“We know they like to play all the time from the goalkeeper, they play from the back, they like to play possession,” he explained. “And our team actually is a good transition team. And if you defend well and you press at the right moments, you create chances in transition. The challenge there is, against a good team like Leon, if you press and you don't win the ball, and they open you up, then they're in control of scoring opportunities. And so I think our players did a good job of recognizing when the right time to press and then in transition, I thought we were very good tonight.”
Leon dominated possession to the tune of 69%, yet most of it was confined to unthreatening circulation across their backline and deep midfield. When their precision slipped or a Sounder forced a turnover, the home side flowed forward with speed and menace.
“We knew if we could kind of let them come a little bit and defend really well as a team, which we did, that there'd be space to transition,” said Morris. “I thought we did a really, really good job of that. On another day, we probably could’ve had a couple more goals. So it was great. We just have to keep going.”
After failing to convert several inviting opportunities as Leon 'keeper Rodolfo Cota showed his quality, Morris finally broke through in the 90th minute, a strike that may prove crucial in aggregate terms. The chance was delivered to him on a platter from his friend Cristian Roldan, deployed as a right winger on this occasion to devastating effect, with two assists and a drawn penalty kick on the night.
Roldan’s tenacity and intelligence inspired his side in both footballing and leadership terms, a particularly important factor given the absence of Ruidiaz and Lodeiro – then became the subject of an extended, heartfelt tribute from Schmetzer.
“As far as Cristian is concerned, I know that he got good results on some of the data sites out there in the data-verse, metaverse, whatever you guys want to call it,” noted the coach, who called his team’s display a “determined” one. “But Cristian’s emotional ties to our success is what I prefer to look at. You can go on Sofascore, Fotmob, you guys can do all that. You guys can do all the data you want.
“But his emotional leadership on the field – when he presses, how he presses, the energy and the desire, the commitment to his team, to himself, to the game, is what makes him a special player,” Schmetzer added. “Never gives up, whether it's the 1st minute, the 95th minute, 4th minute – that's his emotional contribution to the team. It’s far and away greater than any statistic that you guys can come up with.”
Seattle had the luxury of pushing Roldan up to the flank because of the continued excellence of 16-year-old homegrown Obed Vargas, who again ran a tight ship alongside Joao Paulo in deep midfield, flashing poise beyond his years.
Schmetzer had plenty of praise for the teenager; what was more surprising was his hint that luminaries overseas, perhaps from Liga MX, will soon come along and make the Sounders an offer they can’t refuse for the Mexican-American starlet.
“I would hope some of the scouts from Leon or some of the other bigger teams in Mexico would take notice, although I don't want to lose the kid,” Schmetzer said of Vargas. “But certainly he belongs in the team. He has played at a level where he belongs on the field.
“There's a lot of different reasons why the kid has performed well, but we're happy to have him now. And he reminds me a little bit of Cristian when Cristian first came – he's got that defending tenacity, but he can go forward and attack. I think he's going to be a tremendous player for our club, and then let’s see.”
Seattle will visit Estadio Leon for the decisive second leg on Thursday, March 17, with a semifinal date in April against either NYCFC or Guatemala's Comunicaciones FC the reward.