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It’s Only Fitting That Seattle Breaks MLS’s CCL Glass Ceiling

For all the jokes about what Seattle has invented as it relates to American soccer, the Sounders have been a model MLS franchise and make for a worthy trailblazer.

If this long-awaited lightning was finally going to strike somewhere in MLS territory, then Seattle was the perfect place. It’s a city that embraced domestic pro soccer through multiple leagues and decades with a rare, sustained fervor. And it’s home to a club that then set a standard of ambition, consistency and success in a league designed to suppress it. 

The Sounders have always put pressure on themselves to raise the bar and win, even when the surrounding structure doesn’t. So they have, and that ethos and championship culture paved the way for Wednesday’s historic victory before yet another raucous, record crowd at Lumen Field.

Where MLS teams had stumbled and failed for two decades, the Sounders now stand triumphant. After overcoming two early injuries, they easily defeated Mexico’s UNAM Pumas, 3–0, in the second and deciding leg of the Concacaf Champions League finals (last week’s opener ended 2–2). Seattle became the first MLS club since 2001, and the first in the tournament’s home-and-away era, to claim the continental title. 

The Seattle Sounders win the Concacaf Champions League

Seattle ends Liga MX’s dominance in the Concacaf Champions League.

Raúl Ruidíaz, the Peruvian striker who has been one of many big-ticket signings the Sounders nailed, tallied goals on either side of halftime. Playmaker Nicolás Lodeiro, an Uruguayan veteran who has been the creative inspiration behind the club’s recent success, potted Seattle’s third. U.S. national team winger Jordan Morris, an Emerald City native and the son of the club doctor, set the table for his side’s two second-half strikes. The stars shone brightly.

Along with the coveted CCL trophy comes an invitation to the next FIFA Club World Cup, which will feature an MLS squad for the first time. Then there’s the eternal pride and long-term bragging rights that come with being the first to do something so significant (D.C. United and the LA Galaxy won regional crowns before MLS teams were forced to travel). The annual CCL faceplant by MLS entrants was excruciating. Meanwhile, a Liga MX club had been Concacaf champion every year since 2006. There’s never been a streak like that anywhere in the world, and the Sounders will forever be the team that ended it. For those outside the city annoyed by Seattle supporters accused of behaving like they “invented soccer,” it’s about to get worse.

“The first thing only happens once—making history,” said Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei, the CCL MVP who made a tremendous save on a second-half Pumas header when the score was still 1–0. “There will be many more Concacaf Champions League winners, but there’s only one that does it for the first time from MLS. And so we wrote ourselves into the history books today, and I’m so proud of my team.”

Sounders owner Adrian Hanauer and goalkeeper Stefan Frei

Sounders owner Adrian Hanauer and goalkeeper Stefan Frei.

It takes time to make history, and Wednesday’s climactic 90 minutes represented the final steps of a lengthy journey that began when the Sounders, a four-time champion in American soccer’s second tier, entered MLS in 2009. They immediately set attendance records and established an on-field standard, finishing third in the Western Conference and winning the U.S. Open Cup. 

An unprecedented run of success followed. Across the ensuing dozen seasons, the Sounders won two MLS Cups, four conference titles, three more Open Cups and a Supporters’ Shield. Their streak of 13 consecutive playoff appearances is a league record. And in each of those 13 seasons, they finished among the top four in the West. The Sounders are just about the only safe MLS bet.

It’s popular to break MLS history down into eras. The league’s 1.0 era was defined by caution and contraction, NFL stadiums, incomprehensible team names and the D.C. United dynasty. MLS 2.0 was anchored by the construction of soccer-specific stadiums and the Designated Player rule, and at its peak it was dominated by Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane, David Beckham and the LA Galaxy. Then came rapid league expansion, the next generation of arenas, the growth of the academy system and an increase in roster spending. That’s MLS 3.0. The Sounders are its flagship club.

Cristian Roldan celebrates the Sounders’ CCL title

Cristian Roldan basks in the confetti after Seattle’s Concacaf Champions League triumph.

General manager Garth Lagerwey, who helped build small-market Real Salt Lake’s mini-dynasty in the early 2010s, and coach Brian Schmetzer, a Seattle soccer lifer who worked under the late Sigi Schmid before taking the helm, have come close to solving a notoriously inscrutable league. They’ve hit on numerous high-profile signings and become a desired destination for established MLS vets. They’ve also developed several homegrown stars, from the likes of Morris and U.S. workhorse Cristian Roldan to 16-year-old Obed Vargas, who bravely stepped in for the injured João Paulo midway through Wednesday’s first half.

Seattle hasn’t been content to tread water, see its club valuation increase and hope to maybe make a splash in the transfer market. It’s played to win since day one and it’s learned to do so en route. It took eight years to break down the MLS Cup door. And it took seven CCL appearances and six CCL failures, the most in MLS since ’09, to solve the continental puzzle. The Sounders aren’t the highest-spending team in MLS but they’re typically near the top, and they’re likely the best at constructing a competitive roster under the league’s complex and sometimes stifling rules.

“Since ’18, we’ve really had this [core] and we’ve tried to add one piece a year without subtracting,” Lagerwey said before the match. “We really do feel like this is the best group that we’ve had and we’ve been very methodical about it, very strategic to build to this moment. I can’t say the last five years is all about winning the 2022 Champions League. It wasn’t that specific. But it was, ‘Can we get better every single year before we get too old and take a shot at something like this, something really cool like this?’”

Seattle Sounders GM Garth Lagerwey

Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey built the Real Salt Lake team that came close to winning CCL before getting over the hump with Seattle.

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Some will paint this as a win for MLS. League officials, followers and critics have waited a long time for a breakthrough, and the consecutive Concacaf failures were an easy opening argument against anyone touting the circuit’s quality. But in reality, the Sounders’ CCL title is theirs alone. 

MLS has helped a bit, shifting regular season games so Seattle had a couple weekends off to rest up and prepare. CCL teams can fly charter and participation comes with a modest salary budget bump. But MLS also erects its own obstacles. Its low-stakes regular season can limit a given team’s ruthlessness and big-game exposure, and many of the roster restrictions that made beating Liga MX opposition so difficult over the years remain—even as spending increases over the long-term. That inhibits the more ambitious MLS members who might yearn for bigger stakes and stages. Since the introduction of Targeted Allocation Money in 2015, when MLS teams were given the latitude to spread more funds among players beneath the DP threshold, they were still only 9-22 in home-and-home series against Mexican foes heading into this year’s CCL finals. That’s a .290 win percentage, which would get a GM and coach fired from any team in the world.

The Sounders are ahead of the curve. They found their own formula and gradually accumulated all the big-game experience they’d need. This is their title to celebrate.

“I would start with Seattle first. To add that to our trophy case would be a massive honor,” Schmetzer said Tuesday when discussing what winning CCL might represent. “If the outcome goes our way for Seattle, for the Sounders, for the fans, the players, the people who work in our office, the technical staff, I think it would be a huge honor. And then I’ll go to the next layer … the exact meaning for MLS vs. Liga MX and some of the more national story lines, I think that might take me a while to process.”

Raul Ruidiaz lifts the Concacaf Champions League trophy

Raúl Ruidíaz lifts the CCL trophy after scoring a pair of goals in the second leg of the finals.

What it meant to Seattle was clear on Wednesday and in the preceding days. The city leaned into Schmetzer’s earnest F-bomb following the semifinal defeat of New York City FC, and turned the second leg into the “Massive f–––ing deal” he referenced. The crowd of 68,741 was a CCL record. A Sounders flag was hoisted atop the Space Needle, and the club enlisted the likes of Marshawn Lynch and Ken Griffey Jr. to narrate hype videos. There were Sounders displays at Pike Place Market, flags on the ferries that traverse Puget Sound and bright green lights shining from a variety of city landmarks. This was the place where it had to happen.

“It means everything [to Seattle],” Frei said moments after the final whistle. “I mean, it’s a Wednesday, we’re packing this with 68-something thousand people. The passion is so strong in this city for our game. We appreciate it. It’s the reason we have such a high standard and we keep getting into chances to win trophies. And I’m so happy for everybody that we were able to achieve this today for them.”

The Sounders finished the 2022 CCL with an undefeated 4-0-4 record, eliminating two Mexican clubs and the reigning MLS champs along the way. And they were dominant at home, outscoring their four opponents 14–1. The depth they’ve worked so hard to build in recent years was tested on multiple occasions throughout the tournament and then handed a brutal final exam on Wednesday, as left back Nouhou Tolo (thigh contusion) and João Paulo (a potential ACL tear, according to Schmetzer) were lost in the first half hour. Veteran utility player Kelyn Rowe, a Seattle native who has played for four MLS clubs and was battling an injury of his own, and the teenaged Vargas filled in ably.

Seattle Sounders fans celebrate the CCL title

Over 68,000 fans attended the Sounders’ CCL coronation, marking an attendance record for the competition.

Against Pumas, a three-time Concacaf champion, the Sounders fell behind by two in last week’s rain-soaked opener but stayed composed and recovered, earning two penalty kicks that were converted by Lodeiro. Then on Wednesday night, when it seemed like the Concacaf gods just wouldn’t let an MLS club have nice things, the Sounders reorganized themselves following the injuries and took a priceless lead seconds before halftime on Ruidíaz’s opener.

“Give me six months,” Schmetzer said after the game when asked how it felt to make history. It was as if he needed a moment to digest it because of how much time it took and how many people contributed, from former players and coaches to the tens of thousands cheering them on.

“Right now, I’m living the moment and I’m just so proud of that group of players—all of them—because it’s not just the guys that scored the goals tonight,” he added. “It’s all the young kids that are coming up, you know the academy guys—they all get a taste of what this club is all about. I’m just super, super proud of the way the team performed throughout this tournament under some adversity. It’s not an easy tournament to win.

“A lot of people were asking me about the subtle pressure about coming here to perform in front of a large crowd, and I think they passed that test. I think they passed it with flying colors.”

The Sounders are now 8-0-1 in front of crowds exceeding 60,000. There’s no place in American soccer where on-field success is so consistently accompanied by that sort of support. The largest banner that Seattle fans carried Wednesday night on their traditional pregame march to the stadium from Pioneer Square read ’NO EQUAL’ in large letters. That’s true. The Sounders stand alone.

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