Brian Schmetzer needed a minute.
In fact, Seattle Sounders FC's head coach said he’d probably need quite a few minutes to process the weight and scope of his team’s achievement, after they became the first MLS team this century to scale the Concacaf Champions League mountaintop via Wednesday night’s 3-0 win over Pumas UNAM at a jam-packed, pulsating Lumen Field that contained a record-breaking crowd of 68,741 fans.
“Give me six months,” requested Schmetzer in his postgame press conference, held shortly after he fought off tears in a pitchside interview with Extratime’s David Gass.
“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, and it's not just Yeimar [Gomez] and Stef [Frei] and all of those guys. It’s all the young kids that are coming up, the academy guys … just super, super proud of the way the team performed throughout this tournament. There's some adversity, it’s not an easy tournament to win.”
That CCL trophy the Sounders happily hoisted has been a long, long time coming, for their club and MLS as a whole. A white whale that haunted, tantalized and sometimes even seemed to taunt the league as Mexican teams outpaced them to it again and again, the Champions League served up one brutal buzzkill after another since its launch in 2008, even as MLS made such dramatic strides by so many other metrics.
Schmetzer is a pragmatic sort. Even after achieving what no MLS coach has since 2000, when his Sounders predecessor and longtime boss Sigi Schmid won the old CONCACAF Champions Cup with the LA Galaxy, he repeatedly deflected the glory onto his players, his staff, his organization and its fans. Asked where it ranked among his career achievements to date, he even resorted to reeling off a long list of his talented and successful head coaching peers around the league instead.
He also made sure to note that his side has a league game vs. FC Dallas to attend to Saturday, and a US Open Cup match with San Jose shortly after that. But all that drastically underplays both the magnitude of Seattle’s accomplishment and the consistency they showed in the process, going undefeated in this CCL run, highlighted by defeats of Liga MX contenders Pumas and Club Leon as well as the defending MLS Cup champs New York City FC. Sounders president Garth Lagerwey has both the position and the personality to speak a bit more grandly, however, and he surely did.
“Immortality. Immortality,” declared Lagerwey in his postgame chat with the Extratime crew. “You get into sports for stuff that people can never take away. This will be written down, it'll be there forever. Hopefully it's the first of many. We talked about a couple of days ago, we stacked semifinals as a league, then we stacked finalists. Now we broke through.
“This is such an exciting time for American soccer. We’ve got the most talented generation going to the World Cup, and we are now pushing through – we got the best Sounders team of all time and MLS as a league, we’re getting ready to take on Liga MX in a big way, Leagues Cup coming up. It's so fun.”
Lagerwey’s bullishness was particularly appropriate given that he was also the architect of the 2011 Real Salt Lake squad that was the first MLS team to reach a CCL final. To borrow and extend his metaphor, if that RSL bunch were the Sputnik satellite, on Wednesday Seattle pulled off an Apollo 11 mission. Or perhaps the methodical, sustainable output of the space shuttle program is a better comparison.
“In 2011 it was a moon shot. Here, we were the better team. We were the better team in every round we played over the majority,” Lagerwey said. “I’m not saying we were dominant, but what did we wind up at, plus-13 over eight games, and never lost? I mean, that ain’t bad.”
"Hit on all levels"
Over the years many factors have been cited in postmortems of MLSers’ failed CCL adventures at the hands of Liga MX: schedule, spending, paucity of top-end talent, shortages of squad depth, lack of battle-tested experience and so on. So it was fitting that the Sounders checked nearly every box on their march to this title, with impactful Designated Players racking up numbers, rock-steady MLS regulars, dependable depth pieces, fresh-faced homegrown teenagers and even the fans themselves chipping in their respective pieces of the puzzle.
Even as they bask in this groundbreaking moment, one they can lord over their league peers for years to come, one that grants them an unprecedented place in the FIFA Club World Cup, they believe others can follow suit.
“We wanted to make a franchise that could hit on all levels, and I think we’re doing that,” said Lagerwey. “It’s something that can hopefully be followed, and we can make the league better, because that’s what we all want.
“Look, we're a good team,” he noted. “We spent a long time building this thing. But there's a lot of good teams in this league. New York City’s a great team, LAFC is coming out of the gates, great team, New England had 73 points last year. So there's a bunch of good teams and that's the whole thing is, we're level now with the top Mexican clubs. The top MLS clubs, I believe can compete on any given day with anybody in Mexico. And you just couldn't say that five years ago. And so we are the symbol, we’re the tip of the spear, we pushed through, we finally did it, we vanquished the demons. But everybody's welcome, man … We don't want to be up here by ourselves.”
Whether you love Rave Green or loathe it, that’s something worth remembering from this breakthrough night on Puget Sound.