Garth Lagerwey’s long-term success and lengthy title—“General Manager and President of Soccer”—probably afford him the latitude to dabble in whatever aspect of the Seattle Sounders organization he chooses. And so a couple weeks ago, as Lumen Field was filling up for his club’s MLS match against Inter Miami, Lagerwey grabbed a microphone, turned toward the crowd and became emcee of sales.
Seattle’s next home game, the second leg of the Concacaf Champions League finals against UNAM Pumas, would be the “biggest game in club history,” Lagerwey shouted. There’s been pro soccer in the Emerald City since 1974. In their various iterations, the Sounders have contested two NASL Soccer Bowl finals, five A-League/USL finals, four MLS Cup finals and five U.S. Open Cup finals. Trophies and titles were on the line those nights. But a different sort of history will be at stake on the first Wednesday in May.
“This game on May 4 is for immortality. This game is for the whole city of Seattle—the whole community,” Lagerwey said. “If you buy one more Sounders ticket in your lifetime, make it for May 4. You will be able to tell your kids that you were there when the Sounders took a shot at history.”
The most consistently successful club in MLS’s Designated Player era has earned that shot at history. But the Sounders have work to do if they’re going to ensure history is still in play on May 4. First, they must negotiate Wednesday night’s CCL finals opener in Mexico City. Although Pumas, a three-time Concacaf champion, has been mediocre in Liga MX play, they won their three home CCL matches by a combined 9-2. Among them was the 3-0 dismantling of the New England Revolution in last month’s quarterfinal decider. All the Revs had to do that night was not lose by at least three goals. They failed, and then were eliminated in one of the more anticlimactic penalty shootouts in memory. Seattle has to stay in the race this Wednesday to have a shot at finishing first next Wednesday.
UNAM’s Estadio Olímpico Universitario will be full and the atmosphere and altitude will be challenging, even though they’re expected. Mexico has been an MLS graveyard, where two decades of hope and ambition have been snuffed out in one relentless reminder after another that the regional balance of power tilts south. Mexican sides have won a demoralizing 16 straight Concacaf championships, meaning no MLS club has competed at the FIFA Club World Cup. MLS has produced just four CCL finalists in the home-and-away era (since ’02), and all four lost to Liga MX foes. MLS teams have won just 11 of the 55 all-time, home-and-home series against Mexican opposition. It’s a litany and legacy of disappointment.
Seattle has accounted for two of those 11 triumphs, but its overall CCL record isn’t that good. Despite their MLS success and before this year, the Sounders had advanced as far as the CCL semis just once in six campaigns (2013). But they keep coming. No MLS club has made more CCL appearances since the Sounders joined the league.
Their persistent pursuit of excellence and a consistent application of spending and smarts have resulted in more cracks at the CCL puzzle. And experience helps. This Sounders squad, which is anchored by Latin American veterans like playmaker Nicolás Lodeiro (Uruguay), striker Raúl Ruidíaz (Peru), midfielder João Paulo (Brazil) and defender Yeimar Gómez (Colombia), along with U.S. internationals who’ve been through the Concacaf wars like Jordan Morris and Cristian Roldan, seems more suited than most rivals and predecessors to finally end the Liga MX streak. Seattle is 3-0-3 in this year’s CCL, and its run includes an almost routine 4-1 aggregate defeat of Mexico’s Club León in the quarterfinals.
Seattle’s early domestic campaign hasn’t been as successful—it’s lost two straight and is 2-4-1 so far. A slow MLS start is understandable while juggling a CCL run, but the Sounders aren’t happy about it. Culturally, it’s a club that concedes nothing. Coach Brian Schmetzer sent most of his first-choice players out for Saturday’s loss in San Jose, where the Sounders blew a late two-goal lead. Leaving that frustration behind and compartmentalizing Concacaf in Mexico will be vital. This is where that big-game experience, whether it was won or lost, should pay off.
“We can’t think of the last game. This is a different tournament and our focus is 100% on the final. We know how important this is for us,” Lodeiro said Tuesday. “Our confidence right now is very good because you have the chance to play the final, represent your city, the MLS. I think it’s a very important moment for us. We know we didn’t play pretty well in MLS, but this is a different tournament.”
Pumas have their issues as well. Leading scorer Juan Ignacio Dinenno, an Argentine striker, has a CCL-leading seven goals but likely will miss Wednesday’s first leg with a muscle injury. In addition, veteran center back Arturo Ortiz is suspended. The Sounders are healthy, but navigating 90 minutes in Mexico City requires a whole lot more than just showing up.
“They’re a good team. I know they’re dealing with injury situations and players playing, not playing, red cards. It’s a good team,” Schmetzer said in Mexico City. “It’s not going to be an easy game. [A missing player] doesn’t matter. They’ll have the home fans, the home crowd. They have the advantage—if you look statistically about MLS teams coming down here playing in Mexico, it’s very challenging for our teams to come out with good results. So they certainly will be the favorites in the game. What I will say to you is that our team is not afraid.”
Lodeiro said, “Nothing will get decided in the very first match. So we need to play intelligently. We need to try to get the best result, a good result, and bring it back to the final at home.”
Seattle, both the players and fans who bought tickets for May 4, have to hope Lodeiro is right. A heavy loss, like the 6-1 thrashing the Sounders endured at Santos Laguna in 2012 or the 3-0 setback at Chivas de Guadalajara in 2018, would leave a massive hill to climb and might sap some of the hype Lagerwey tried to spark. Some teams in the Sounders’ position might want to temper excitement or expectations. The history is convincing, and an MLS side will be a CCL underdog until the moment its captain lifts the trophy.
But as Schmetzer said, the Sounders aren’t afraid. Lagerwey, who was Real Salt Lake’s GM during its run to the CCL finals in 2011, set this title as a target when he arrived seven-plus years ago. The club is comfortable with its ambition and not shy about sharing it. That was the culture from the start, as attendance records were shattered and when the late Sigi Schmid set a winning tone. There were Open Cup crowns and a Supporters’ Shield, but it took the Sounders eight years to finally break through and make an MLS Cup final. But they’ve since made it more of a habit, reaching four of the past six and winning two. They keep coming.
“This is a massive f---ing deal for the club,” Schmetzer said to his team right after the semifinal triumph over New York City FC. “That’s why we all play.”
The Sounders have run with that sentiment, from Lagerwey’s on-field appeal to a fun video released Monday that features Seahawks icon Marshawn Lynch, the club’s Sound Wave band and a “tiny f---ing dog” that leaned into Schmetzer’s earnest f-bomb and the gravity of the May 4 climax.
“It’s going to be a big f---ing game! … It’s a big f---ing stadium! We need to fill all these seats,” Lynch said from inside Lumen Field. “We ‘bout to make history.”
The Sounders are fine with the spotlight. It’s where the club has resided for more than a dozen years. But this Wednesday’s game represents a different sort of challenge. It will be a test of everything Lagerwey and Schmetzer have built—the maturity, flexibility, depth and comfort in the clutch. No MLS team has made it over this hurdle. That Mexico City altitude is real. But the Sounders have never been just another MLS team. They’re U.S. soccer’s most consistent winners. They’ll have to show that championship composure and mettle at Pumas and then emerge in one piece in order to take their shot at history on May 4.
“I think they’re excited for the game to finally come. I think they’ve been thinking about this game since the [semifinal],” Schmetzer said Tuesday. “It’s going to be a good game. It is two legs. We’ll be ready for them. Look, we’re excited for the game. Let’s see how the first game goes, and then I think where you’re going to feel the real excitement is when we go back home.”
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