In the constant quest to prove its quality, MLS has rightly identified winning Concacaf Champions League as the next major marker. There have been 13 champions crowned during the current version of the tournament, all of them from Liga MX. Just four times has an MLS team even reached the final.
As frustrating as this failure has been, it’s also served to prove the point that chasing this goal is worthy, in part because it’s legitimately difficult. For an MLS team to win this tournament, they need to start playing competitive games while in preseason form, and have to navigate opponents who don’t have to deal with the same spending restrictions, while traveling all over one of the largest geographic federations in world football.
Thanks to their 4-1 aggregate victory over Liga MX’s Club León, the Sounders are as close to achieving this goal as they’ve ever been.
After watching how they navigated the second leg — a 1-1 tie in front of a reasonably packed Estadio León — I’m inclined to believe they can pull it off. The Sounders never looked panicked, playing solid defense and patiently waiting for opportunities to get into transition. When they got those chances, they punished León, not always with goals but with dangerous looks that never allowed their opponents to get comfortable.
A perfect illustration of this was the way the decisive goal came together. It was already first-half stoppage time when Albert Rusnák found João Paulo with a simple pass near midfield. But João Paulo saw something few in MLS are capable of seeing and he set himself up for a half-volley with the outside of his boot that was perfectly weighted for Kelyn Rowe to run onto. It would have been easy enough for Rowe to take the ball into the corner and just get his team to halftime. Instead, he back-heeled it to Jordan Morris — who only a few minutes earlier looked like he may have to come off with an injury. Morris took a couple of dribbles before spotting João Paulo streaking into box after making a 50-yard run to get into position. João Paulo shook free of the first defender and then left the final defender no choice but to foul him, setting up the Sounders penalty that Fredy Montero expertly finished.
For all intents and purposes, the game was over at that point. The only question was if the Sounders could hold on for an outright win. That they couldn’t — León managed to finally grab a goal in stoppage-time — definitely dampened the mood.
The Sounders had achieved something pretty monumental, if not literally historic. They had ousted one of the top teams in Liga MX, becoming just the sixth MLS team to do that in the knockout stages of this tournament and securing the second biggest aggregate-goal margin of victory of any MLS team over a Mexican opponent.
But they weren’t particularly interested in celebrating that. They were more focused on looking ahead and achieving something literally historic.
“I did tell the players to enjoy the moment,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer said, who didn’t seem to be taking his own advice. “It’s an iconic stadium with a very talented team. But we came to win. We wanted to win, we wanted to keep a shutout.”
Cristian Roldan struck a similar stone-faced tone: “We’re really proud, but we want to take care of business. We want to be in a final. It’s going to be tough because New York City is a tough team.
“We want to be part of history. We want to be the first MLS team to win the Champions League.”
If they manage to come out on top, they’ll have run the full gauntlet of CCL, going through some of the best teams from Central America, Mexico, the USA and finishing it off in Mexico City, a place where American teams have virtually no history of success. It’s a daunting task, which is exactly the point.
“To be honest, I am nervous,” Montero said earlier this week. “That means I’m alive, I’m enjoying the moment.”
The Sounders had come into the game intent on winning. It would have been easy enough to ignore those goals and focus on the fact that they advanced relatively easily. Instead, they held themselves to a higher standard.
This attitude, almost as much as the way they’ve played throughout this tournament where they’ve outscored opponents 9-1, is what fills me with optimism. The Sounders are embracing the challenge and accepting nothing less than achieving it.