Of Doug McIntyre
FOX sports football writer
This has be the one, right?
After MLS teams stumbled over the last hurdle on four occasions in the past twelve years, Wednesday’s CONCACAF Champions League final between Seattle Sounders and Liga MX team UNAM Pumas (9:30 PM ET, app FS1 / FOX Sports) has for being the one who finally, mercifully, gives the MLS its first regional title in more than two decades and triggers Mexico’s streak of streak in the annual competition at 16.
Seattle is a bookmaker favorite after last week’s comeback in Mexico City. That 2-2 draw means a home win – in front of what should be a crowd of over 67,000 at Lumen Field for the second leg of the two-game, total-goal series – would secure the Sounders’ place in history, for not to mention an MLS team’s first trip to the FIFA Club World Cup.
Nothing, however, is guaranteed. And given the long-standing uselessness of MLS teams in this event against southern border enemies, the LA Galaxy were the last MLS team to earn CONCACAF’s highest honor, in 2001, when the entire tournament, then called the Champions Cup, it was staged in Los Angeles – it makes sense to be cautiously pessimistic about the Sounders’ chances on Wednesday.
“They are a good team,” Seattle midfielder Albert Rusnak of Pumas said Tuesday. “There must be a reason why I’m in the final.”
Although no MLS representative has won the CONCACAF Champions League in its current home format, the teams have come close. LAFC arguably had the best shot, beating the Tigres for most of the 2020 finale, a one-off game staged in a bubble at a neutral site in Orlando due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Two years earlier, Toronto FC lost a couple of Liga MX heavyweights to advance to the final, in which they beat Chivas in Guadalajara but lost the tiebreaker on penalties.
Real Salt Lake (2011) and CF Montreal (2015) drew away in Mexico and, like Seattle, only needed a home win to claim the trophy. They both failed.
However, this looks different. Packed with established international players such as Uruguayan Nicolás Lodeiro and Peruvian Raúl Ruidíaz, Seattle has arguably the largest MLS roster ever. They are a battle-tested group, having achieved four MLS Cups (winning twice) in the past six seasons. In addition, they will play on Wednesday in front of a sea of green-clad partisans, the largest single-game audience in the history of the tournament.
But the main reason the Sounders are not entering Wednesday’s game as underdogs is that the MLS has changed.
Now in its 27th season, the top flight in the United States and Canada is still far behind the money-rich European circuits. But while MLS teams are still burdened with some of the twisted wage and roster restrictions that have kept them from tiptoeing with the best in Liga MX pocket for more than 20 years, they have slowly but surely begun to bridge the gap. gap.
“Looking back on my early years with the Sounders, I don’t think we’ve had that many players playing in Mexico, Europe or even with the US national team,” said veteran Sounders forward Fredy Montero, who has spent since 2009. to 2014 with the club before leaving for Sporting Lisbon and returning in 2019. “This makes a huge difference.”
MLS is still fundamentally conservative when it comes to finances. Even with the 2026 World Cup hosted by the United States, Mexico and Canada just behind the horizon, there are no plans to let the league’s billionaire owners spend whatever they want on their teams.
However, GM and sporting directors have more resources and flexibility than they did just a few years ago. And a Seattle win on Wednesday would help justify that approach.
“We are getting closer,” Sounders manager Brian Schmetzer said during Tuesday’s pre-match press conference. “Money is a factor in many aspects of life. The quality of our game has increased by importing players. I think the quality of American players has also increased.”
Wednesday marks another opportunity for the championship to prove it.
Meanwhile, Sounders players are trying not to get overwhelmed by the opportunity, which is easier said than done.
“We are aware of the magnitude of the game,” Rusnak said.
Ruidíaz, who led Peru to their first World Cup appearance in 36 years in 2018, called Wednesday’s game “one of the most important games of my career”.
Schmetzer added: “There is a certain underlying pressure, being the home team in front of a large crowd.”
The experience of winning the 2019 MLS Cup final in front of more than 69,000 fans in Seattle should help. But visitors will not go silent. From imposing goalkeeper Alfredo Talavera to champion Juan Dinenno, they will be a blow.
“Pumas is a tough opponent,” Ruidíaz said. “We must first keep the score at zero, but also make better use of our chances” compared to last week, when the Sounders wasted several golden chances.
Both of Seattle’s goals in Mexico came on Lodeiro’s penalties.
Schmetzer wants the Sounders to be more aggressive in the house. “But you never know how the game will play out,” he said. “There are times when you have a game plan and you want to be on the front line and defend for the first 20 minutes.”
The opportunity is there, however. And this time around, the momentum is on the side of the MLS team. A Champions League win for the Sounders would be historic, but it wouldn’t be a stroke of luck or a shock.
“We are prepared,” said Schmetzer. “Eventually, it will happen.”
For fans in Seattle and across the MLS, Wednesday night can’t come early enough. The stars have aligned. History is waiting to be written. This has be the only one.
It is not true?
One of North America’s foremost football journalists, Doug McIntyre has followed the United States men’s and women’s national teams in more than a dozen countries, including several FIFA World Cups. Prior to joining FOX Sports, the New York City native was a staff writer for Yahoo Sports and ESPN. Follow him on Twitter @By Doug McIntyre.
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