National Writer: Charles Boehm

What Seattle Sounders can learn from CCL Final woes of past MLS teams

Even almost 10 years after that fateful night, Nat Borchers’ voice still dipped and dropped an octave or two as the painful memories flooded to the surface.

“And I remember at the end of the game, being so upset because the fans there, they'd all been standing on their feet for the whole 90 minutes. They were expecting something, and we couldn't give it to them,” he said.

“If you look back on it, it was probably the biggest game in American soccer history up to that point in time, I mean, in terms of club level, MLS vs. Liga MX. The fact that we couldn’t get it done was tough.”

It was April 2020, and with most of the world hunkered down at home, waiting and hoping for the COVID-19 pandemic to abate, Borchers was speaking to me for a retrospective about the 2011 Concacaf Champions League final, MLS’s first great hope (and first of four great disappointments) of winning the modern iteration of the tournament.

A rock-steady center back, he was the bedrock of the Real Salt Lake side who won MLS Cup 2009 and then mounted a stirring run to that CCL final vs. CF Monterrey. Borchers scored one of RSL’s two goals as the Utahns rallied twice to snatch a 2-2 draw in the first leg at Estadio Tecnológico, which set them up well for the decisive second leg at their Rio Tinto Stadium home on April 27, 2011.

Fate, and Humberto “Chupete” Suazo, had other ideas. Rayados’ Chilean striker scored a cold-blooded finish on the stroke of halftime that would win the return leg, the series and the trophy for Monterrey. It was the first of four CCL final heartbreaks for MLSers over the ensuing decade, as Montréal, Toronto and LAFC were also undone at the final hurdle in 2015, 2018 and 2020, respectively.

Each run had its own context, to be sure. For example, two years ago LAFC faced Tigres UANL in a single-legged, neutral-site final held in an empty Exploria Stadium, as Concacaf was forced to adjust its format to finish that edition in a bubble setting in Orlando in the midst of the pandemic.

But all four offer some data points for the Seattle Sounders as they prepare to host Pumas UNAM in Wednesday’s 2022 CCL final second leg at what's looking like a sold-out Lumen Field (10 pm ET | FS1, TUDN).

Here are a few lessons from MLS’s CCL gut-punches past.

Strongest XI

We’ll start with an area that, barring any late-breaking developments, the Sounders can already feel good about. As obvious as it may sound, a first-choice lineup or something close to it is vital when facing a quality Mexican opponent, and for many of Seattle’s predecessors, that was simply not an option.

RSL had to play the second leg without Kyle Beckerman after their captain and tough-as-nails defensive midfielder picked up a yellow card in Monterrey. CF Montréal, back then known as the Impact, were quite shorthanded by the time they reached the second leg of their final vs. Club América, with Justin Mapp, Cameron Porter, Hassoun Camara and Victor Cabrera injured and Marco Donadel barely returned to fitness.

Worse, goalkeeper Evan Bush was suspended on caution accumulations and a combination of cap-tying and injuries among his backups forced the Quebec club to sign Kristian Nicht from the USL’s Indy Eleven; América’s 4-2 win was his first and only appearance for Montréal.

Three years later, Toronto’s injury woes were even grimmer, as d-mid Michael Bradley and right back Gregory van der Wiel had to deputize as the Reds’ starting center backs in the second leg vs. Chivas Guadalajara with Drew Moor, Chris Mavinga, Eriq Zavaleta, Nick Hagglund and Justin Morrow all hurt. TFC’s hard road to the final was so debilitating as to push them behind the 8-ball for the rest of the season, which ended in failure to even qualify for the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs.

In 2020 LAFC made their run in Orlando without their spearhead for most of that season, as they elected to let Bradley Wright-Phillips leave at the end of the MLS calendar ahead of the CCL bubble in December. The Sounders, on the other hand, have mostly gotten healthier and deeper as their run unfolded rather than the opposite.

Control the tempo

Time and time again these MLS teams have lost a handle on the flow and tenor of key passages in the final, undoing their good work on either side of those periods and forcing them to scramble in ways that benefited their adversaries.

The most galling examples are those that happened on home turf. As Seattleites have no doubt noted this month, both RSL and Montréal outperformed expectations on Mexican soil in the first legs just as the Sounders did at Estadio Olímpico Universitario, digging out 2-2 and 1-1 draws, respectively. TFC got baited into the breakneck style of then-Chivas manager Matias Almeyda in losing their home leg 2-1.

A loss of control helped sink all of them in the end.

Allowing Suazo to strike first forced RSL to chase the game against bunkered-in visitors eager to break out on the counter. Montréal took an early lead at home via Andres Romero, but with 61,004 fans roaring them on at Stade Olympique, couldn’t rein in the back-and-forth nature of that game and were soon undone by Dario Benedetto and the rest of Las Aguilas’ attacking arsenal.

“Physically, we seemed to tire a little bit,” said coach Frank Klopas afterwards. “We tired and we got stretched. When you give them a lot of room, with the quality they have, they make you pay.”

Toronto somehow summoned enough energy and quality to level their tie on aggregate at Estadio Akron, but the tank was empty by the time they reached the penalty-kick shootout. LAFC edged ahead of Tigres via Diego Rossi’s goal just after the hour mark, yet had no answer when Andre-Pierre Gignac and his seasoned teammates shifted up a gear in that match’s final 20 minutes.

Spotless, focused box defending

2011: 2-2, 0-1, 3-2 on aggregate

2015: 1-1, 2-4, 5-3 on aggregate

2018: 2-1, 1-2, 3-3 on aggregate, 4-2 in PKs

2020: 2-1

It’s not hard to pick out another common thread from MLS’s CCL finalists’ woes: Across seven matches in total, not a single clean sheet posted.

In some of the most consequential, pressure-packed club matches on this continent, where one mistake can spell doom, MLSers simply haven’t been clean, composed or consistent enough in the back. You could chalk some of that up to nerves and lack of experience, though there’s also the hard reality that most Liga MX teams invest significantly more money and cultivate more depth on their forward corps than the average MLS roster.

“We had them – we played a flawless 44 minutes, we had one defensive lapse at the end of that first half and they punished us,” recalled Borchers, ruing Suazo’s clinical composure in front of goal.

“Just a difference in quality of a striker like him vs. strikers that we would play against in MLS – it was just another level.”

The Sounders essentially already fell victim to this tendency in Leg 1. Center backs Yeimar Gomez Andrade and Xavier Arreaga both struggled, the two combining to concede a first-half penalty kick dispatched by Juan Dinenno before Yeimar’s simple misreading of a cross allowed Dinenno to double the lead with a thumping header. Any more such slips will be even costlier this Wednesday.

Mind the stars, keep the faith

The list of strikers who’ve scored on MLS sides in CCL finals is a pretty solid list of the region’s elite performers over the past decade: Aldo de Nigris, Oribe Peralta, Orbelin Pineda, Rodolfo Pizarro, Alan Pulido, and we've already mentioned Suazo, Benedetto and Gignac. Liga MX’s brightest stars have generally seized the spotlight in these moments, and hoisted hardware soon after.

Andres Lillini’s Pumas are a somewhat different story. UNAM are no longer one of their domestic league’s biggest spenders, and Dinenno’s numbers in domestic competition are not particularly awe-inspiring. The Argentine has certainly been a beast in “ConcaChampions,” though, banging in nine goals in seven CCL matches, and he followed last week’s brace vs. Seattle with another clutch performance at the weekend, coming off the bench to score twice in a 2-0 final-day win over first-place Pachuca that booked Pumas’ place in the postseason.

Then again, perhaps Pumas have flipped the script to such an extent that one of their other impact contributors, 39-year-old goalkeeper Alfredo Talavera, will be the one to watch on Puget Sound. If the Sounders can harness the waves of noise from 60,000 or so Rave Green supporters and lock Los Felinos into their own end for long stretches, Talavera will need to summon his best shot-stopping and box-commanding skills.

Composure is a must if and when SSFC do carve Pumas open, another past MLS bugaboo to avoid.

“I’m not a big believer in luck, I’m a believer in execution,” said then-TFC head coach Greg Vanney after some untidy finishing by his Reds let Chivas off the hook before their agonizing loss on penalties. “It’s unfortunate that we didn’t execute in the moment. I don’t think it’s about luck for Chivas. We have to make them pay in that moment, and we didn’t.”

The Sounders showed resilience in abundance to rally from 2-0 down to reach level terms in Leg 1 injury time. If anyone in modern MLS can produce another dose of it, it’s them, considering this is the sixth final they’ve contested under coach Brian Schmetzer.

“What I always appreciate about our team is that we never quit. We never stopped trying. It’s always been there, the culture of the club has always been there,” said Schmetzer after the first leg.

“And now it goes back to 90 minutes to decide the winner.”