LAS VEGAS – The Seattle Sounders were so close, but that only makes it all the more frustrating.
After Cristian Roldan redirected Jimmy Medranda's cross into the net in the 48th minute of Wednesday's Leagues Cup final against Club León at Allegiant Stadium, the Sounders were just one half of soccer away from the club's first international title. Even after Raul Ruidiaz saw what would have been a massive second goal hit off the post minutes later and Club León found a 61st-minute equalizer, it was all still right there for the taking.
Instead, the first-ever Leagues Cup title for an MLS club will have to wait at least one more year, as Club León struck twice more before it was all said and done. They held on for a 3-2 victory despite a late consolation tally from Seattle's Nicolas Benezet.
With this year's Leagues Cup now in the books, here are three takeaways coming off a wild night in Vegas.
In the days leading up to the match, Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei spoke of the importance of capitalizing on these opportunities when they present themselves, with the knowledge that it's never a given that you'll ever make it back to the mountaintop of an international competition.
The veteran backstop has been on both sides of it, helping win each of Seattle's first two MLS Cup trophies, but also coming out on the short end in the league's title bouts in 2017 and 2020. Speaking after Wednesday's match, Frei said that his biggest source of disappointment is missing a landmark moment for both the club and the league.
"I can speak for my own disappointment. It was an opportunity to make history," Frei said. "I was fortunate to hoist our first MLS Cup. Winning trophies is everything, but winning the first one is extra special because it will only be done once. It was an opportunity.
"We’re really doing well to find ourselves in finals, but it really sucks to lose in finals, to come so far and fall just short. It’s good to have those high standards, but no one ever remembers the teams that got to a final, only the ones that won them."
To their credit, the Sounders went as hard as they could for this year's Leagues Cup, with head coach Brian Schmetzer fielding a first-choice lineup for all three games. On Wednesday, it wasn't enough against a Club León team that punished Seattle for their defensive lapses, which included concessions on a penalty kick and a breakaway late in the second half.
"I'll never second-guess the effort that group of players put into this game, to this competition," Schmetzer said. "I think part of the reason why we're such a proud and strong franchise is because we do take these games very seriously.
"Normally we're a pretty good team about not giving things away. Certainly against a quality team like León, they're a very, very good soccer team and you can't give them anything. So, it didn't work out for us tonight, but I'm proud of the effort we showed to get back to 3-2. I always credit my team for never giving up, even at 3-1."
There's no denying that Wednesday's match was a spectacle. The announced attendance of 24,824 at Allegiant Stadium were all in the lower bowls of the venue, providing an electric atmosphere throughout the night, especially in the second half, when the goals started flowing and the energy in the building really reached a fever pitch.
"I thought it was an entertaining match, probably for a lot of fans," Schmetzer said. "I think the showcase of the two teams was good."
With Tuesday's blockbuster announcement ahead of the final that from 2023 the Leagues Cup will feature every MLS and Liga MX team competing in a month-long tournament, more games between the leagues are on tap for the years to come. Many more. That's something that can only bring the players' level up, Frei said, when he was asked about the lessons his team can take from an international competition like this as opposed to a domestic one.
It won't temper their disappointment any, but Seattle now have three games worth of minutes against high-quality, well-drilled, extremely disciplined opposition, which should pay dividends when they return to league play.
“I still sense when we face Mexican sides how aggressive and how hungry they are,” Frei said. “There’s still a bit of difference when it comes to opponents we find in our league. That’s one thing that would be really nice for us to be able to absorb into our own squad – that hunger, that drive, that arrogance at times. Then being able to back it up, too, obviously. It’s a good lesson.
"You want to be able to play against good sides. We were able to gather a good amount of experience against top, top teams from Mexico and hopefully we can learn something and take some on board, but you always want to play against good squads, different squads to measure yourself and improve yourselves."
Playing in a cup competition during the MLS season always requires a balancing act between aiming for a trophy while also paying heed to the league schedule and Audi MLS Cup Playoffs standings.
For Seattle, the challenge now becomes turning the page quickly on this defeat and refocusing back on the Western Conference race, where they're in a full-on battle for the No. 1 seed. They'll be thrown right back into the deep end against Sporting Kansas City on Sunday (7 pm ET | FS1, FOX Deportes) in a road bout against their current closest rival for that coveted top seed.
That leaves no time to dwell on Wednesday's loss, especially as the postseason inches closer.
"We have to. That's life," Schmetzer said. "Yeah, the guys are gutted in that locker room, they're tired, they're emotionally drained. But it's also a resilient group. So, we will regroup, we have to regroup. We understand where Sporting KC is in the standings. So we'll get this game, we'll try and push past it and we still have some very important business to take care of trying to finish as high as we can to get the best playoff seeding that we can.
"Some of the emotion after a tough loss like this, it's hard to describe and it's hard to handle. But just by default we have to get back on the horse and get ready for a stretch of games to close out our regular season."