It’s been something of a ‘dog bites man’ moment for those who’ve watched US and Canadian MLS teams’ two-plus decades of frustration and woe – mostly at the hands of Liga MX opponents – in Concacaf Champions League and its predecessor, the CONCACAF Champions Cup.
The Seattle Sounders are favored over Pumas UNAM in the 2022 CCL final, which kicks off Wednesday with Leg 1 at Pumas’ Estadio Olimpico Universitario in Mexico City (10:30 pm ET | FS1, TUDN). Leg 2 is then set for May 4 at Lumen Field.
Yes, it’s true that this is not a universal conclusion. It’s one of the more balanced matchups in the annals of high-stakes MLS-Liga MX faceoffs, and many oddsmakers have shorter odds on a Pumas win in their home leg. History alone dictates that the Mexican team is more likely to triumph here. But a variety of factors have led pundits on both sides of the border to give the Rave Green the nod on paper.
“Don't be afraid to be called favorites, consider yourselves favorites. Because you are, at least on paper,” declared Herculez Gomez, the former US international who played in both leagues (including for Seattle) before becoming an ESPN pundit, on the Sounder at Heart podcast this week.
“It doesn't matter what the paper says at the end of the game, once that little round ball starts rolling around on that floor, it's a different story. But Seattle without a doubt should be considered favorites: player personnel, actual moments, individual talents, I would say recent history, etc etc. – roster makeup, whatever you want to call it, whatever you would like to dive into, they're considered favorites.”
Here’s a look at why that is the case: Why the Sounders look like MLS’s best hope yet for breaking the league’s hoodoo and winning CCL for the first time ever, looking across five categories.
CCL Final Preview
Here’s the starting point for Mexican clubs’ stranglehold on the CCL trophy, which no one outside of that nation has won since its launch in 2008 (and since the LA Galaxy’s 2000 Champions Cup win, the Costa Rican duo of Alajuelense and Saprissa are the only teams outside Mexico to win CCC, too):
Quality. Liga MX’s financial power and deep cultural roots in a large, soccer-mad nation have cultivated a sheer density of elite talent that no one else in North America, and arguably even the Americas as a whole, can match. Every time it’s seemed like an MLS club might break through, particularly in the four times they’ve reached CCL finals before this year, one of the world-class stars from a titan like Monterrey, América or Tigres UANL has stepped up to make a play, or several plays, and keep the streak alive.
Thanks to the scale of their fandom and the organizational budget it helps drive, Seattle are one of MLS’s more ambitious clubs in financial terms, not only on the roster – which ranked ninth in The Athletic’s 2021 breakdown of MLS wage bills – but in terms of infrastructure and staff. Pair that with savvy scouting, a best-in-class data/analytics operation and the salary-budget wizardry of Garth Lagerwey and Craig Waibel, and you have an array of top-end talent that can compare to most Liga MX sides.
Designated Players Raul Ruidiaz, Nico Lodeiro and Albert Rusnak along the spine. Rock-steady TAM-level imports João Paulo, Yeimar Gomez Andrade and Xavier Arreaga anchoring and protecting the defense. International-caliber regulars Jordan Morris, Nouhou and brothers Cristian and Alex Roldan along the flanks, and an all-time great MLS goalkeeper in Stefan Frei. But wait, there’s more...
Let’s just continue the list-off from the previous paragraph: If and when the Sounders have to delve beyond their first-choice lineup – and it’s always “when” in CCL – head coach Brian Schmetzer can pull from a diverse mix of value pickups, proven veterans (many of whom could get more minutes elsewhere in MLS), and rising homegrowns from the club’s burgeoning academy project.
After Seattle’s semifinal series win over New York City FC, Schmetzer summed it up better than we could:
“Look, we lost Yeimar [to injury] and Jackson [Ragen] has stepped in and done very, very well. Fredy Montero scored some very important goals for us earlier in the tournament. Will Bruin’s effort tonight, Nico coming back from an injury, Kelyn Rowe playing well in different games,” he said.
“We've had to have a lot of players on this team step forward in critical moments, starting with Motagua, then you have to play León, which is a very good team. And now we had to play the best team in MLS last year, the champions, MLS Cup winners, so we've had a hard road. And so yes, we have needed everyone.”
The Cascadians have also impressed with their tactical intelligence and adaptability on this run. While capable of dominating possession and making opponents chase when at full strength, Schmetzer and his staff looked at their injury absences and international call-ups this spring, considered the particular context of two-legged knockout series, and decided to deploy a counterattacking approach, backstopped by a fierce, highly-organized defensive shape.
It’s worked beautifully.
Seattle’s execution of that ethos has been top-notch, forcing onlookers to reconsider their ideas of what “dominance” of a game really looks like. Their mastery of the tempo and character of both games against Leon, despite obviously conceding them the ball for long stretches, was remarkable.
“We knew that this is a team that likes to hold possession a lot. And we knew that if we were strong from behind and then we could come over and make transitions, we were going to be able to overcome that,” said Montero at the time. “We were very concentrated all the time. And also we had the benefit of having two very effective and fast wingers like Jordan and Cristian from each one of the sides, that were able to basically break that proposition that the other team put together.”
Unlike most other MLS contenders in CCL, these Sounders know how to soak up pressure and are confident in doing so. They rarely look besieged even in a reactive posture. And that can go a long way in places like Mexico City and its thin air.
A not-insubstantial part of the Rave Green’s success is a sort of collective and institutional momentum. This club has been so consistently successful for so long, and in such a parity-oriented MLS environment, that everyone at all levels of the organization faces a higher bar than their typical peers at other clubs.
That’s made them regular CCL participants, which has given them more than their fair share of CCL heartbreak, and thus made them keenly aware of what’s at stake in continental competition, what’s required and why it matters so much.
“We want to be part of history. We want to be the first team to win Champions League, the first MLS team,” said Cristian Roldan after the quarterfinals dispatching of Club Leon.
The Sounders have not hesitated to place Champions League at a higher priority than the first several weeks of league play, reasoning that a) the chance to become the first-ever MLS winner of CCL is worth it and b) their rotated XIs can still compete at a respectable level in the league. The Western Conference standings show that they will have a hole to climb out of when their full focus returns to MLS, though they’ve faced and overcome such situations in seasons past.
“It's a trophy that the club certainly covets,” Schmetzer said of CCL. “The constant theme throughout this club, the culture of the club, is to win every game, every trophy, every competition. We take all the games seriously, we don't buy the excuse where if you commit to one tournament, you can’t proceed or do well in the other. We don't buy that. That's the ethos we try and push into our younger players.”
The 2022 tournament draw, and the nature of its Liga MX participants, has also worked in Seattle’s favor. They were able to start their run against a lively but manageable adversary in Honduras’ Motagua, then dealt with a Mexican opponent they had familiarity with in Club Leon (who beat the Sounders in last year’s Leagues Cup final). NYCFC provided a stiff test, albeit with a proactive style that played into SSFC’s hands (see STYLE above).
Now they meet a Pumas side whose curtailed spending in recent years has seen them drop out of the traditional Mexican elite, and who thus don’t boast the overwhelming arsenal of attacking menace that the likes of Monterrey, Tigres or América might bring to bear. Manager Andres Lillini has done superb work to keep Los Felinos competitive in spite of that, elevating younger or overlooked talent and swinging value deals for affordable imports, and will undoubtedly have his hungry squad prepared to give their utmost in the final. That’s just not the same as the type of talent one of “los grandes” would pose, however.
Recent developments have further boosted Seattle’s prospects. Pumas have hovered in mid-table for most of the current Clausura campaign and need results to break in their favor on the upcoming final weekend of the Liga MX regular season in order to stay in a liguilla (playoffs) slot. They’ve had to wade through a congested schedule.
Defender Arturo Ortiz is suspended for Wednesday and livewire striker Juan Ignacio Dinenno, CCL's leading scorer thus far with seven goals in six matches, is reportedly likely to miss out too as he battles a calf injury. Even Lillini’s future is somewhat hazy; his current contract reportedly expires at year’s end and he himself mused this week that “maybe everything will depend on this final.”
None of this adds up to the Sounders having anything resembling an easy path to CCL glory. They’ll have to produce their best level or something very close to it if they are to vanquish Pumas. Yet it’s hard to conceive of a more viable candidate to end MLS’s long run of misery in this tournament.