Brian Schmetzer is an astute student of the beautiful game who often shares insightful perspectives with reporters during his postgame press conferences.
“I'm not quite sure,” the head coach said when asked for his impressions of the pulsating match, marked by three penalty kicks and ample Video Review drama above and beyond the usual intensity of this continental tournament. “It might take me until we're halfway back home to really understand what happened in the game. It certainly was an interesting game.”
His side conceded nearly as many goals in these 90 minutes at rain-soaked Estadio Olimpico Universitario as they had in the entire tournament up to this point (three), falling behind 2-0 just after halftime due to a Juan Ignacio Dinenno brace as Los Felinos soaked up the adulation of their vibrant home supporters.
Seattle attacking stars Raul Ruidiaz, Nico Lodeiro and Jordan Morris looked off their usual rhythm. Cristian Roldan suffered one hard foul after another with no yellow cards in sight. And center backs Yeimar Gomez Andrade and Xavier Arreaga showed some costly jitters at decisive moments, particularly on the first-half play that led to a PK earned, then eventually finished by Dinenno after Stefan Frei saved his first bid but was judged to have left his line early.
Stomachs churned along Puget Sound – and beyond – at the prospect of yet another MLS heartbreak vs. Liga MX opposition, amid a signature outbreak of Concacaf craziness, in a CCL final.
“I’m not so sure that our tactics were wrong. I think there were many moments in the game where our team didn't play up to their potential,” said Schmetzer. “There were some guys who were too rushed, especially at 0-0, there was no rush for us, but we wanted to go – sometimes that's a problem with our team. We like to go go go, and maybe we could have sustained more possession, found a little rhythm to the game.”
For many onlookers, it looked like MLS’s CCL Groundhog Day all over again after four clubs fell at this stage in previous iterations. Then the Sounders’ experience and grit revealed itself yet again, as this talented, determined squad hauled themselves back to level terms in the final stages to earn the inside track on the historic breakthrough they crave when the series is decided at Lumen Field come May 4 (next Wednesday).
First Ruidiaz interrupted an otherwise difficult night with a game-changing sequence. The Peruvian coolly settled a half-clearance in Pumas’ penalty box after a corner kick, and with one lightning touch surged past Sebastian Saucedo to earn Seattle’s first spot kick, as the Real Salt Lake academy product handled the ball in his efforts to block Ruidiaz’s low cross.
Pumas’ veteran goalkeeper Alfredo Talavera immediately sought to crawl into Lodeiro’s head as the Uruguayan Designated Player stepped up to the task, jawing voluminously in the agonizing leadup to the kick, only for Lodeiro to beat him to the side netting by a whisker and respond with some trash talk of his own.
“Nothing really happened. I mean, it's a typical football thing,” said Lodeiro afterward, leaving plenty unsaid. “It's what happens when you're playing a final and there is lots of people and lots of players agitated, because they're defending their jersey and their team. And once that's over, it's over, and nothing happened.”
The playmaker dedicated the goal to his wife Micaela, who is due to give birth next month, and their newest member of the family en route: “I’m sending a kiss for her and also for Ignacio, who's coming on that day,” he said.
Later, in injury time, the tie shifted on its axis again.
Roldan flashed his street-smart instincts to earn another penalty, hitting the deck writhing in pain after Efrain Velarde rashly gave his thigh a kick while defending him in the box, Roldan’s fifth foul suffered of the night. Salvadoran referee Ivan Barton had to trot over to the Video Review screen – a trip he made several times on this night, to the alternating joy and fear of both sides – to spot the infraction, but spot it he did, and Lodeiro stepped up to face Talavera again.
“I've seen the replays,” said Schmetzer of the contentious decisions. “I mean, the penalties were penalties.”
Lodeiro’s second take was even more emphatic, a rifled strike into the top corner, providing sweet vindication for a foundational player who’s lost long stretches of the past year-plus to a frustrating sequence of injuries.
“I just have to be prepared,” said Lodeiro, who has embraced the burden and blessing of leadership since the day of his arrival in Seattle from Boca Juniors almost six years ago. “I have to be with peace of mind and confidence that I'm going to be able to deliver. That’s what the team is expecting and that's what we are preparing ourselves to do all the time. So having that confidence that we're going to be able to execute well is what helps us be successful when taking PKs.”
Even on a night where he struggled to make his usual impact on the run of play, Lodeiro was ready to shoulder the enormous gravity of those situations, and his teammates followed suit.
“Nico, he did what he had to do. I mean, in pressure moments – you don't understand how much pressure there was,” said Schmetzer. “People are talking about that atmosphere and the fans and the pressure and it's building, and Nico comes through and he makes the two penalties. So he's a great player and he's got a lot of mental toughness.”
The job’s far from done. But the Rave Green can return home with the iconic achievement they crave well within their grasp.
“‘Congratulations. You guys never quit,’” said Schmetzer of his postgame message to his team. “We just needed to stay calm, cálmate a little bit, and just play the game. That's what I told them.
“I wouldn't say that our team played up to our potential this evening,” he later reiterated. “And it's not just one player. I mean, I could look around the whole team, and could the whole team have played better? Yes, I believe they could. And I believe we will.”