SEATTLE – As the clock ran down in the second leg of Seattle Sounders FC's Concacaf Champions League Final series against Pumas UNAM at Lumen Field, goalkeeper Stefan Frei had to catch himself.
The scene at Frei’s longtime home stadium, already known as one of the most raucous venues in MLS, was in a state that even the veteran backstop had never seen. With his team marching towards a historic first-ever CCL title for an MLS club, the record-breaking crowd of 68,741 onlookers had turned on their phone flashlights and raised them in the air, just prior to Nicolas Lodeiro’s 88th-minute finish that officially put the contest to bed after a Raul Ruidiaz brace had the Sounders ahead 2-0.
“This stadium, we’ve always had exceptional crowds, but on a Wednesday night, 68 [thousand] and change is a huge deal,” a jubilant Frei told reporters following the historic 3-0 (5-2 aggregate) victory. “I think with about four to five minutes to go, I’ve never had the stadium have the lights out, people with their cell phones and I got a little choked up: I had to tell myself, there’s still some game left, like relax, you’ve got to take it easy.
“But it’s special, very special. As a little kid this is what you dream of. You do the airplane and close your eyes and you envision a stadium full of people that are chanting you on. This is it. So, to have an opportunity to live out that dream is precious. I cherish it.”
In the week leading up to the match, the buzz in the city of Seattle was already palpable, with the club selling enough tickets to break the single-match CCL attendance record with time to spare before match day. Outside the venue before the game, the atmosphere and feel were notably different, akin to the last time Seattle played host for a Final in their victorious MLS Cup 2019 effort – but this time with continental glory on the line.
The Sounders were already one of the league’s most decorated clubs, with two MLS Cups, a Supporters’ Shield and four US Open Cup titles in their trophy case. But as any MLS fan can attest, CCL is a different beast, considering the dubious history the league’s clubs have experienced in a competition traditionally dominated by Liga MX. The continental tournament has become something of a holy grail, with the first MLS champion bagging eternal bragging rights.
On Wednesday, the Sounders finally set new history, a moment years in the making and one that general manager Garth Lagerwey has been talking about virtually from the moment he took the job.
“One of the most important wins, I think, of my career,” midfielder Cristian Roldan said.
“When you get to make history and you’re the first one to do it, you’re in the history books forever. No one can take that away from you. So I’m really happy our fans showed up, 68,000 in midweek, again, it’s special – you don’t see that very often. Credit to them. It was just a great experience and I’ll never take anything for granted.”
Roldan took it a step further, saying there’s no better showcase for why Seattle should be hosting a World Cup match come 2026 than the scene we witnessed on Wednesday.
“I think our city has showed that we deserve a World Cup match,” he said. “The reality is we had a sold-out crowd, a crowd that was in the game, that won us the game. Hopefully people don’t take that for granted, because it’s difficult to have a stadium like that happening at midweek at 7 o’clock. So, credit to all 68,000 of them because they really pulled us forward."
Sounders winger Jordan Morris is Seattle born and bred, a native of nearby Mercer Island, Washington that came up through the club’s youth academy.
Like Roldan, Morris said summiting the CCL mountaintop is the crowning achievement of his career to date, something that only truly sunk in after the standout homegrown was subbed off just before the final whistle, as he, Ruidiaz and Lodeiro all received standing ovations from a delirious home crowd.
“I think it [sunk in] after we scored the third one and it’s probably done and then when we got subbed off; just hearing the crowd was amazing,” Morris said. “It goes back to what I said before: We have the best fans in the league. To have 68,000 out there today was unbelievable and they pushed us to a victory, so we’re really grateful to our fans.”
Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer is also a Seattle lifer, with deep roots dating back to his playing days for the NASL iteration of the club in the 1980s. He served as the coach when Seattle were in the USL, prior to his stint as an assistant upon the club’s 2009 entry into MLS under the late Sigi Schmid, which preceded his assuming of the first-team head coach role in 2016.
After the match, Schmetzer said he would need a little time for all of it to settle in after being at the helm for the club’s biggest accomplishment to date.
“I said in some press thing give me six months,” Schmetzer said. “I’m probably going to stick to that. Right now I’m living in the moment and I’m just so proud of that group of players, all of them, because it’s not just the guys that scored the goals tonight, it’s not just Yeimar, Stef and all of those guys. It’s all the young kids that are coming up, the academy guys, getting a taste of what this club is all about. I’m just super, super proud of the way the team performed throughout this tournament under some adversity. It’s not an easy tournament to win.
“A lot of people were asking me about the subtle pressure of coming here to perform in front of a large crowd. I think they passed that test. I think they passed it with flying colors.”
Frei, who was named both Goalkeeper and Player of the Tournament, said he already has plans to commemorate the occasion: With an as-of-yet undetermined tattoo that teammates may join in on (the heavily-inked backstop already has a pair of star tattoos on his hand in honor of his two MLS Cup titles).
“Not a star, but something, yeah,” Frei said. “I’m trying to coax some players to follow me and get maybe a few other guys to do it as well. It’s history.
“I think this is something that I will carry for the rest of my life.”