Seattle Sounders FC have shown guile, spirit, resolve and resourcefulness through the early weeks of 2022, navigating a raft of injuries while fighting on two fronts as they reached the semifinals of the Concacaf Champions League.
They hadn’t yet turned on the showtime, though – certainly not in the fashion they displayed in Wednesday night’s impressive 3-1 defeat of New York City FC in the first half of their CCL semifinal series at Lumen Field, a result that puts the Rave Green in a strong position as the scene shifts to Harrison, New Jersey for next week’s decisive second leg at Red Bull Arena.
“Every one of us gave it all today. I think there wasn't a player that didn't have a great performance,” said Albert Rusnak, who drew first blood with his first Sounders goal and was impressive throughout in a deep-midfield pairing alongside Joao Paulo. “And that's what it takes in these kinds of games. We played against a good team, and we managed to win by two goals. So we're halfway there, but we're expecting another tough game next week on Wednesday.”
Albert Rusnak scores 13-pass buildup for Seattle vs. NYCFC
After the Sounders knitted together the lovely 13-pass sequence capped by Rusnak’s first-time finish past Sean Johnson, the Cityzens responded with a well-crafted goal of their own from Thiago Andrade.
But almost immediately Jordan Morris banged another pretty strike into the top corner after a savvy endline cutback from his friend and opposite-flank counterpart Cristian Roldan, and when a Video Review decision awarded a penalty kick to the hosts shortly after the hour mark, Nico Lodeiro rifled home the spot-kick that gave Seattle a two-goal cushion to defend on the East Coast.
“My overall impressions, right now,” said head coach Brian Schmetzer afterwards, “was that was an entertaining soccer game. I hope our fans enjoyed that. I did. I enjoyed that. I hope the TV audience that tuned in enjoyed that. I thought it was a good game.”
Jordan Morris scores top-class goal for Seattle vs. NYCFC
Controlling the match’s tempo and the majority of possession, pressing high at key moments to disrupt NYCFC’s buildup, flashing fluidity and complexity in their own patterns of passing and movement: This was both style and substance, steel and silk, steak and sizzle from Seattle.
It hinted at just what vast potential remains to be reached for one of the most talent-laden squads in modern MLS history, who are finally approaching full strength as Lodeiro and Raul Ruidiaz return to fitness.
“We haven't had our full complement of players so far this year. And you're just starting to see the tip of the iceberg there when guys are back to full health, and Raul and Nico's inclusion to the group that did some heavy lifting earlier,” said Schmetzer. “There's other people that have stepped up. But to have everybody now in place, I think you're going to see a little bit of how this team is going to kind of build into what they are.
“But then again, trying to find the right balance of using Jordan in our transition moments, because I don't think we want to be just a possession team, because that would kind of limit Cristian and Jordan, what they do well. So we'll have to keep working on finding that balance.”
While the untimely mental errors that allowed NYCFC to snatch an away goal may yet prove costly, the Sounders looked prepared for what Ronny Deila’s side would offer, while keeping in touch with their own strengths, and desires to set the tone.
“We know how good of a team they are – they like to press high, they like to keep possession, they have a lot of good attacking pieces, and so it was important for us to be switched on defensively,” said Morris of the reigning MLS Cup champions.
“I thought we did a good job of pressing them high at moments, forcing them to kind of get out of their rhythm a bit. And I thought we kept possession at times, really well dictated the pace of the game, when we needed to slow it down, we kept the ball and then when we felt like we could get an opportunity or get a scoring chance, we went for it.”
During the postgame media availability, a reporter told Schmetzer that his side is being touted as tournament favorites by the Mexican press despite the presence of Liga MX contenders Cruz Azul and Pumas UNAM in the other side of the bracket. While the mere premise reflected the respect Seattle have earned with their displays up to this point, the veteran coach responded with a characteristic note of warning.
“What I told them in the locker room was, we are not finished yet,” said Schmetzer. “It's not over against New York City FC and I don't care what the Mexican press says. We're not going to be the favorites. We have to still earn every opportunity we have to even get to a final.”
Such caution is merited, given CCL’s history of drama and the many years of MLS teams’ suffering within it. But the Sounders’ current trajectory points to the very real possibility of unprecedented achievements.
“We're not getting ahead of ourselves too much, our only focus is now on the next game next Wednesday and what we can do to win that and move on to the final,” said Morris. “But yeah, of course, that's a feeling that we have and we'd love to be that first MLS team to win the championship.”