There they will face Liga MX’s Pumas UNAM in a two-legged series on April 27 and May 4, with the first leg set for Estadio Olímpico Universitario in Mexico City and the second leg at Seattle’s Lumen Field, thanks to the MLSers’ superior record thus far in the competition.
“It's a trophy that the club certainly covets,” said Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer after Wednesday’s result, which gave his team a 4-2 aggregate win over the defending MLS Cup champions. “I think that's something that we have made public. I think Garth [Lagerwey, Seattle’s president], when he came here, said it was a goal of ours.
“The constant theme throughout this club, the culture of the club, is to win every game, every trophy, every competition. We take all the games seriously. We don't buy the excuse where if you commit to one tournament, you can’t proceed or do well in the other. We don't buy that.”
Here’s a breakdown of what’s gone before, and what lies ahead.
Though it’s become more common in recent years, the Sounders are in rarified air, historically speaking.
The Rave Green are just the fifth MLS club to reach the final in the tournament’s modern incarnation, which began in 2008, and none of their four predecessors in that regard won the title. D.C. United and the LA Galaxy do hold the honor of Concacaf champions, however, having won its forerunner, the CONCACAF Champions’ Cup, in 1998 and 2000, respectively.
While clubs from seven nations in all have earned that honor over the decades, Liga MX has long held CCL in a stranglehold, winning every single edition of the current format. Current champs CF Monterrey are the most decorated winners with five continental titles during that time.
It’s become something of a white whale for MLS, considering that the league’s dramatic growth and progress since 2008 have yet to be matched by a Concacaf championship, to say nothing of the high-profile berth in the FIFA Club World Cup that it grants. The awkward timing of the tournament kicking off during MLS preseason has sorely tested fitness, sharpness and depth, while the high concentrations of elite talent on top Liga MX rosters has been a trump card for its contenders. And there have also been some agonizing near misses.
Real Salt Lake looked like solid contenders to break the duck in 2011. Back then the tournament ran along a fall-spring schedule, with a group phase, then a knockout stage stretched across two MLS seasons. Powered by Jason Kreis’ tiki-taka 4-4-2 diamond, RSL outlasted the Columbus Crew and Saprissa in the quarterfinals and semifinals. But even with a 2-2 draw in Mexico heading into the final’s second leg at Rio Tinto Stadium, Monterrey proved a bridge too far, edging the Utah side 1-0 on the night and 3-2 on aggregate via Humberto “Chupete” Suazo’s winner.
In 2015 CF Montréal, then known as the Montréal Impact, played the Cinderella role with distinction. Despite finishing dead-last in the 2014 league table, the Quebecois club advanced out of the CCL group stage and upset Pachuca, then Alajuelense in the knockout rounds to face mighty Club América in the final. A 1-1 first-leg draw at the vaunted Estadio Azteca put IMFC in good position for the decisive second leg in front of a large, raucous home crowd at Stade Olympique, only for a second-half hat trick from Dario Benedetto to cruelly extinguish Montréal’s dreams.
Three years later, their fellow Canadians Toronto FC came even closer, vanquishing the Colorado Rapids, Tigres UANL and América en route to a final date with Matias Almeyda’s Chivas Guadalajara as Sebastian Giovinco’s stunning exploits earned him player of the tournament honors. A pulsating final clash across two legs ended 3-3 and had to be decided by a penalty-kick shootout, where Alan Pulido and the Goats triumphed 4-2 at Estadio Akron.
LAFC, too, felt like a team of destiny in 2020 as they dispatched three quality Liga MX adversaries – Club León, Cruz Azul and América – on their march to the final, with Carlos Vela playing some of the best soccer of his Black & Gold career. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, that edition of the tournament was paused during the quarterfinal stage and completed in a bubble situation in Orlando, Florida that December, with the remaining ties streamlined to one-game series. LAFC carved out a 1-0 lead over a stacked Tigres squad via a Diego Rossi goal, only for Los Felinos to pull off a late comeback win via strikes from Hugo Ayala and Andre-Pierre Gignac.
The 2022 Matchup
Though Liga MX’s mastery has led some observers to conclude that a hex of some sort has been cast over MLSers in CCL, the current Sounders side have shown themselves eminently capable of breaking new ground. In fact, they’re already being tabbed as favorites by many on both sides of the Mexico-US border.
Lagerwey, who was instrumental in the construction of that 2011 RSL team, has built one of the most talent-rich rosters in MLS history. Designated Players Raul Ruidiaz, Nico Lodeiro and winter free-agent capture Albert Rusnak top a long list of proven performers that also includes Joao Paulo, Jordan Morris, Stefan Frei, Nouhou Tolo and brothers Cristian and Alex Roldan, augmented by a surging academy pipeline and impressive depth pieces like Fredy Montero and Kelyn Rowe stepping up at key moments in their run to this point.
They’ve been flexible and intelligent in tactical terms, often soaking up pressure for long periods and striking with precision and menace on the counterattack. The club’s culture of ambition and success has also been evident, and they’ve taken seriously the chance to be CCL pioneers, even when it required fielding young, rotated lineups in league play.
“We want to be part of history. We want to be the first team to win Champions League, the first MLS team,” said Cristian Roldan after Seattle’s quarterfinal defeat of Club León. “Look, one way or another, there's going to be an MLS team in the final and for us to be potentially one of them, that just makes us really proud and hopefully we get a lot of support from our people in the States.”
Some would say they’re fortunate to be facing a Liga MX opponent from outside Mexico’s traditional elite. While they can boast seven league titles, Pumas’ last such achievement was over a decade ago and they’ve scaled back spending in recent seasons, prompting a number of value-oriented acquisitions from across Latin America. But that risks slighting the outstanding work of their Argentine manager Andres Lillini and his players, who are thriving in CCL while treading water in the league this spring.
UNAM held off a spirited challenge from Saprissa in the round of 16 to advance 6-3 on aggregate. Then they mounted an incredible comeback to stun the New England Revolution, who won the first leg of their quarterfinal in snowy Massachusetts 3-0 only for Pumas to match that scoreline in Ciudad Universitaria before besting the Revs on PKs.
Lillini got his tactics spot-on to top a talented Cruz Azul side in the semifinals, goosing the throttle to win 2-1 at home, then battling La Maquina to a 0-0 stalemate with tenacious pressing and box defending in Tuesday’s second leg. Striker Juan Ignacio Dinenno has terrorized opposing defenses to the tune of a CCL-best seven goals, while veteran goalkeeper Alfredo Talavera, marauding fullback Alan Mozo, RSL academy product Sebastian Saucedo and other contributors have made them a tough proposition across the pitch.
As rock-solid as they’ve been in CCL, Seattle will probably have to find another level to take this final, particularly in a treacherous first leg at CDMX’s lung-searingly high altitude.
“One thing that we know is that we cannot play a second half that we played today, in Mexico,” said Frei after Wednesday night’s wild draw with NYCFC at Red Bull Arena. “We’re going to run out of juice very quickly.
“I think we put in a lot of effort, but if we're going put ourselves under so much pressure in Mexico City, it's going to be very, very difficult. So they have a good side and we're going look at what makes them tick, and also maybe what we can exploit or what we want to target. But it'll be a good final.”
Perennial trophy hunters under Schmetzer, the Sounders understand what will be required, and even after all their domestic success, sound hungry to gain one-of-a-kind bragging rights via Champions League glory.
“Since 2016, I think there's been one year that we were not participating in a final of some sorts. So that's what you play for. That’s, I think, why players come to this organization, because ultimately you want to play for trophies,” said Frei.
“The fact that I was able to be part of [Seattle’s first MLS Cup in] 2016 is a historic moment in the franchise,” he added. “There's very select few opportunities to make history, alright? That one is gone. There's still one elusive one for the MLS. If you can be that one, it's going to be massive for your career, for the franchise, for everybody involved. And what a massive opportunity.”