MLS Insider: Tom Bogert

Stefan Frei and Seattle Sounders overcome NYCFC, chase history in CCL final

HARRISON, N.J. – From the very first duel – literally no more than 10 seconds into the game there was a foul, a coming together after the whistle, and a yellow card – Leg Two of Wednesday night's Concacaf Champions League semifinal between Seattle Sounders FC and New York City FC was on the edge.

But then Raul Ruidiaz slashed a good deal of tension with his 28th-minute goal, giving the Sounders a three-goal aggregate lead and all-important away goal. NYCFC got hope through a 51st-minute Santi Rodriguez finish, but a Stefan Frei goalkeeping masterclass over the next 20 minutes kept the game out of reach, with Seattle advancing to the CCL final with a 4-2 aggregate win over the Cityzens.

The Sounders now face Liga MX’s Pumas with the chance at becoming the first MLS club to win CCL's modern iteration and, with it, book a place at the FIFA Club World Cup. Four MLS clubs have previously come up short at this final hurdle to Mexican teams, most recently LAFC in 2020.

“There are select few opportunities to make history,” Frei told media after the game. “There is one elusive trophy for MLS, if you can be that, it’ll be massive. What a massive opportunity.”

“It’s a trophy the club certainly covets, it’s something we’ve made public,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer added.

Stefan Frei pregame

That first interaction served as a good microcosm for the match. NYCFC, the aggressors, were chasing a 3-1 deficit from Leg One, though Seattle weren't backing down.

Taty Castellanos leaped up for an aerial duel off the kickoff, leaving Xavier Arreaga in a heap. Cristian Roldan came over to voice his displeasure; the pair went forehead to forehead and then Roldan was on the floor. Castellanos walked away with a yellow card.

“We knew we were going to get a spirited NYCFC team, a committed and motivated team; it wasn’t just the first foul or challenge,” Schmetzer said. “We warned (our players) about that. We needed to match their energy.”

NYCFC remained on the front foot and every single challenge from both sides was full-blooded. It was a continental semifinal, after all. The “home” side, playing at Red Bull Arena, dialed the pressure and urgency throughout the 90 minutes.

“Sometimes teams throw the kitchen sink,” Frei said. "Tonight, NYCFC threw the bathtub.”

NYCFC edged the expected goals battle 3.31 to 0.85. Frei had seven saves, including a number of point-blank stops from six yards or closer.

“We created enough to score at least three goals, but their goalkeeper was unbelievable,” NYCFC head coach Ronny Deila said.

NYCFC were without midfield playmaker Maxi Moralez in both legs due to a rib injury.

“Today (the players) were on fire,” Deila said. “They were all over Seattle, who are a really good football team. But in the end, we weren’t good enough in the two boxes, and that’s why they are in the final and we are not.”

Seattle move on to face Pumas in the final, after the Liga MX side beat Cruz Azul in the other semifinal (2-1 aggregate). Pumas currently sit 10th (of 18) in Liga MX’s Clausura. Nearly fully fit, only missing center back Yeimar Gomez Andrade from their expected strongest XI, Seattle will fancy their chances against anyone on the continent.

With Jordan Morris back to full speed after missing the vast majority of 2021, Nico Lodeiro back in action following an injury-plagued season, plus key offseason addition Albert Rusnak finding his best form in the team, the Rave Green are considered favorites in the final.

“We’re excited to play the second leg at home,” Frei said. “Hopefully with an amazing atmosphere, we can achieve something no one has done before.”