Seattle Sounders Head Coach Brian Schmetzer was visibly moved by what he witnessed in the moments directly following the final whistle at Lumen Field on Wednesday.
Schmetzer’s Sounders had just trounced Pumas 3-0 to become the first MLS club in 17 tries to win the Concacaf Champions League. A million things ran through his mind, from the performance itself to the shattering sound of nearly 69,000 Sounders fans to perhaps even his own journey to this stage. Since being signed by the NASL Sounders at 17, Schmetzer’s journey here has been 42 years in the making.
And yet of all the things Schmetzer could’ve mentioned first, his mind snapped not to himself or the big money signings or any of the obvious support struts that guided Seattle here.
He talked about the collective. About depth. About everyone.
“Right now, I’m living in the moment, and I’m just so proud of that group of players,” Schmetzer said. “All of them. Because it’s not just the guys that scored the goals, and it’s not just Yeimar and [Stefan Frei] and all those guys. It’s all the young kids that are coming up, 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.”
Those were not idle words, nor were they randomly chosen. The Sounders under Schmetzer, and under the roster wizardry of General Manager & President of Soccer Garth Lagerwey, have been unique in Concacaf Champions League history among MLS clubs in how they’ve developed and cultivated depth for runs just like these.
Cup runs expose your depth. In the Sounders’ case, they were counting on it.
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Depth, and more specifically quality depth, has long been the keystone of successful cup runs, not just in this competition but worldwide. Since Feb. 17, the Sounders have had to squeeze eight Concacaf Champions League matches around their regular MLS schedule. As the fixtures pile up, players get hurt, need rest, miss time. Progressing would require a deep bench, a luxury which has eluded every MLS club to reach the knockout stages of this tournament.
During Wednesday’s title-clincher, depth was a game-saver. Stalwart starters João Paulo and Nouhou were both lost for the match to injuries within the opening 20 minutes, a double whammy few MLS clubs would be positioned to weather. The Sounders hardly missed a beat, switching out João Paulo with 16-year-old Homegrown Player Obed Vargas and Nouhou with endlessly versatile veteran Kelyn Rowe. Both were vital contributors to a shutout.
“The reality is, our front office has done a great job this offseason creating depth,” midfielder Cristian Roldan said. “It’s great to have a good team on paper but you also have to show we’re a good team on the field. It was the next man mentality. Obed, a 16-year-old, and a 10-year veteran [Rowe] coming in for those two guys is something you can’t replicate in this league.”
Indeed not. The seeds for the championship were sewn far before the night of the championship coronation.
WATCH: GOALS | Sounders dominate Pumas 3-0 to win Concacaf Champions League
As far as Frei is concerned, that’s allowed the Sounders to continue holding the standard as each new player joins the locker room.
“I think it starts really early with the continuity that we have in our locker room,” Frei said. “Then we’re able to bring in a few pieces on top of that, and because we have the continuity, the standard we hold ourselves to is quickly absorbed by those new players, so they’re integrated very quickly. Maybe that’s why players want to come here, because you want to play your precious few years hopefully for trophies. We’ve proven and shown that we generally speaking have the opportunity to get us into those positions.”
The depth itself has come from both a series of shrewd under-the-radar personnel decisions combined with the cultivation of one of MLS’s deepest academies. And the Concacaf Champions League Quarterfinal was the perfect representation for the impact of the Sounders’ mile-long bench.
In mid-March, the Sounders found themselves with a tricky home-and-away matchup against Liga MX stalwart Club León and facing the prospect of starting a patchwork lineup in both matches. Superstar forward Ruidíaz missed both legs. Backup forward Fredy Montero, who returned for his second stint in Seattle in 2021, scored three goals in his absence, including one in Mexico to secure a vital 1-1 draw. Needing to bolster the defense in Mexico, Schmetzer started Jackson Ragen, a former Tacoma Defiance and Sounders Academy defender who performed ably in the draw. Lodeiro also missed both legs. In response, offseason signing Albert Rusnák moved up into his creative attacking hole in the second leg at home and Schmetzer flung out Vargas into a starting role, easily the largest stage of his young career. León managed just three shots and the Sounders won 3-0.
WATCH: Sounders lift the 2022 Concacaf Champions League trophy
It was, fittingly, the first of two 3-0 wins Vargas would be part of in this tournament.
“I think Schmetzer trusts his players,” Frei said. “He always says this is our team, and we take it as far as we want to. Then we look around the locker room and see all that quality and we know that we can achieve those things.”
The Sounders’ entire run was built on those moments, players stepping out of shadows and into starring roles at times from seemingly out of nowhere. And while the outsize role played by stars like Lodeiro and Rusnak and Roldan and Frei and Ruidíaz often take center stage, the Sounders proved that it takes a giant spotlight to win a title. And Seattle’s stage was shared by a large cast Sounders fans will never forget.
“When you get to make history and you’re the first one to do it, you’re in the history books forever,” Roldan said. “No one can take that away from you.”