Sounders’ CONCACAF title pay off long-term vision
SEATTLE — Nothing about what happened Wednesday at Lumen Field was a coincidence.
The Seattle Sounders becoming the first Major League Soccer team to win the CONCACAF Champions League was a yearslong journey for all involved. The competition in its current iteration had been ruled exclusively by Mexico’s Liga MX, which has built-in advantages through its history, roster construction rules and the calendar. Seattle weathered it all. Pick any player, coach or executive, and they’re an important element to completing the ultimate puzzle.
Let’s start with the hometown kid Jordan Morris.
Growing up in the Seattle area, he’s living his childhood dream by playing for the Sounders. This specific tournament, though, brought back bad memories. In the CCL opener four years ago on Feb. 22, 2018, Morris tore an ACL for the first time. Last year at this time, he was rehabbing another ACL tear that cut his loan to Swansea City in the English second tier short and landed him back in the Pacific Northwest.
As he tried to work his way back yet again, it was a moment like Wednesday’s that kept him motivated.
“Last year was a really tough year going through a difficult injury,” Morris said. “To be back playing in games like this and winning trophies is kind of what you think about when you’re going through the rehab, so it’s amazing.”
He ended up being an integral part of the two second-half goals that stamped the win over Pumas UNAM, 3-0 on the night and 5-2 on aggregate.
Raul Ruidiaz, meanwhile, was of course going to play his part, scoring the first two goals of the game. When he joined the Sounders in 2018, he arrived as one of the top goal scorers in Liga MX with Morelia, and not much has changed stateside.
The Peruvian international has played in big moments before, but he didn’t hesitate to call this the best victory of his career. Many of his champagne-and-beer-soaked teammates backed that notion.
“This is the best one for me,” said Cristian Roldan. “Making history, something that MLS has tried and tried again to do. Being able to be the first MLS side to win the trophy makes it all that more special.”
Veteran Kelyn Rowe, another Washington native, called it a dream come true. And his piece of the puzzle was unexpected.
Rowe was on the bench to start the game, but 11 minutes in he found himself thrown into the fire after left back Nouhou Tolo left due to injury. Rowe didn’t even know if he’d be available for this game because he was nursing an injury himself. When head coach Brian Schmetzer asked him the day prior if he was good to go, he didn’t hesitate.
“Was I lying? Probably a little bit,” he said.
But the experience wasn’t going to escape him or 16-year-old Obed Vargas, who had to play over an hour as an injury replacement for João Paulo.
The “next man up” phrase is often cliche in sports settings. Yet for this Sounders team, it illustrates the trophy-winning DNA running from the top of the organization to the youth academy, from which Vargas graduated.
“We have an exceptionally high standard where we do find ourselves in situations to win trophies,” said goalkeeper Stefan Frei. “Schmetzer trusts his players. He says this is our team, always, and we take it as far as we want to. Then we look around the locker room, we see all that quality and we really know that we can achieve things.”
Their sustained success hasn’t just paid off in winning, it’s also made recruiting players easier. Take Albert Rusnak, the former Real Salt Lake midfielder who signed this past offseason and has already made a difference.
“Honestly, I don’t know how we ended up getting him, we were super fortunate,” Morris said with a smirk. “He just brings so much calm on the ball, slows the game down when we need it, sets the pace. Him and [João Paulo] in the middle do such an amazing job as the heartbeat of our team.”
Rusnak was arguably the best player on the field Wednesday. When his counterpart Paulo went down, he raised his game and affirmed Seattle’s decision to sign him to one of its three designated player slots.
Team president and general manager Garth Lagerwey labeled it Rusnak’s best game as a Sounder. Lagerway, who like Rusnak used to be at RSL, had been envisioning a night like Wednesday’s since losing to Monterrey with his former club in the 2011 CCL final. He joined Seattle in 2015, and the plan to return to the final with a new club there was put in place.
Schmetzer took over as head coach in 2016, and since then the club has won MLS Cup twice and now a historic CCL title.
When asked how important the milestone is, Schmetzer chose to give props his coaching peers like Bob Bradley, Bruce Arena and Giovanni Savarese.
“There’s a lot of talented coaches in MLS, this was going to happen at some point,” he said. “Yes I feel fortunate that I’m with a really strong, forward-thinking, proactive organization and I had a chance to do it. But I think there’s going to be more success following our success.”
MLS hopes that’s true, but even if it is, it won’t be the same. The Sounders finished the 2022 edition without losing a single game, ousting a pair of Liga MX clubs and the reigning MLS champions in NYCFC en route to the title. At some point likely next year, they will take part in the FIFA Club World Cup and face the champions from each other confederation worldwide, including Europe.
“It’s an amazing club, fan base, and we do a lot of things right here in Seattle,” Morris said. “Going into the year that was such a huge goal for us — to be the first [MLS] team to win this. To have it done now and to have made history is incredibly special. It’s emotional. I think it’s going to take a few days to even set in, but we’re gonna enjoy it.”