SEATTLE – It doesn't get much more dramatic than that.
The Seattle Sounders are through to the 2021 Leagues Cup Final after a heart-pounding 1-0 victory over Liga MX side Santos Laguna at Lumen Field on Tuesday, delivered by a last-second goal from star striker Raul Ruidiaz in the waning moments of second-half stoppage time.
The late rebound tally set off a wild celebration at Lumen Field and sets the Sounders up with a title bout against the winner of Wednesday's second semifinal between Club Leon and Pumas UNAM, on September 22 at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas.
Here are three takeaways following Seattle's memorable finish.
The final score may have been 1-0 but make no mistake, this was a back-and-forth, well-played soccer match that put quality on display from both sides.
Santos Laguna gave the Sounders everything they could handle throughout the night, especially in the second half, notably coming within inches of opening the scoring themselves in the 65th minute when Diego Valdes ripped a vicious free kick past Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei and off the post. The Liga MX side were supremely disciplined on defense, especially in transition where they managed to keep Seattle's counterattacks at bay until the very last play of the match.
Simply put, that was just a good soccer game, the type of spectacle we all hope to see whenever MLS and Liga MX sides face off, whether it's in the Leagues Cup, Concacaf Champions League or otherwise.
"That was an entertaining soccer game for me," Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer said after the match. "I know I was a little nervous on the bench and it was fast, but that first 45 minutes, it was like 15 minutes because the game was so fast. So credit to Guillermo [Almada], he has a tremendous team.
"I think every single person in this organization should be happy with what was in my eyes a really great result against a very well-coached, well-organized team in Santos Laguna."
We're running out of superlatives for Ruidiaz at this point. The Peruvian standout's goal-scoring exploits are well-known to MLS fans by now, but his propensity for scoring clutch goals is what truly makes him one of the league's most lethal and feared strikers.
The stage simply doesn't faze him, as has been demonstrated repeatedly since his 2018 arrival in Seattle throughout regular-season play (where he's currently leading the Golden Boot presented by Audi race), the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs and now in Leagues Cup.
As Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan noted after the match, Ruidiaz relished the opportunity to compete against opposition from the league where he previously starred for Atlético Morelia, winning a pair of Liga MX Golden Boots. Whoever the opponent is, you can bet Ruidiaz will bring that same energy and intensity in next week's final.
"I think it's mentality," Roldan said at his postgame press conference. "You can see him become different when it's a big moment. When we're playing a Mexican side or when he has ties on the other team, there's a little bit extra that he gives. You saw it in the LAFC game in 2019, I could see it in the All-Star game. You see it in moments like today.
"He was dangerous all game. It was unfortunate that he didn't score another one in the first half but at the end of the day he's a goal-scorer and he'll find his way to score a goal."
The Leagues Cup is still in its infancy as a tournament, but with this win, the Sounders now find themselves in position to achieve an accomplishment that has eluded them as an MLS club: Win an international tournament.
A final in Las Vegas gives Seattle a chance to make some history, both for the club and for the league, which is looking for its first Leagues Cup winner in this competition's second edition. That, along with obvious storylines revolving around bragging rights between the rival leagues, are sure to lead conversations in both countries in the buildup to the final.
For Schmetzer, the trick will be figuring out how to maintain the balance between using this opportunity as motivation and not letting Seattle get too caught up in the moment. The veteran Sounders coach is certainly keen to not get swept up in the external narratives around the game.
"We're caught up in the Seattle Sounders moment, that's what we're caught up in," Schmetzer said. "This is our moment, it's not Liga MX against MLS. You guys can write that story. What I'm writing is we are in another final, this organization, this club's in another final. There are hundreds of storylines for this game: Fredy Montero started with us in 2009, he's back and playing an important role for our success. How good is Raul Ruidiaz? There's an easy storyline for you, that's a layup for you.