There are many inherent reasons why Major League Soccer teams have previously struggled in Concacaf Champions League, ones that go beyond just a talent and wage gap with their Liga MX counterparts that continue to dwindle.
Given the nature of its calendar, MLS teams are in the middle of preseason. Plus, the teams playing in CCL are often vastly different than the ones that qualified for the tournament four months earlier.
This is what makes this CCL-winning Sounders championship team, which defeated Mexico’s Pumas UNAM 3-0 (5-2 on aggregate) on Wednesday night in front of a CCL record-breaking crowd at Lumen Field, so special.
Not only did the majority of the group remain from 2021, Seattle made a significant signing in Designated Player Albert Rusnák in free agency. In fact, the core of the group has been together since Seattle’s first MLS Cup run in 2016 and is a major factor why the club has won three trophies from six final appearances over the past seven years.
“Experience gets overlooked often when teams win championships,” said Sounders Senior Vice President of Soccer & Sporting Director Craig Waibel. “It’s not just the domestic leagues and the experience of MLS Cups, a lot of these guys have experience in massive international matches with huge pressure moments.”
This starts with captain Nicolás Lodeiro. He’s played in two FIFA World Cups with Uruguay, consistently one of the best national teams on the planet, and he’s won everywhere he’s gone. He’s won club titles in the Netherlands with Ajax, in Argentina with Boca Juniors, in Brazil with Botafogo and for his boyhood club Nacional.
Now, he has a third Sounders title to his name, cementing his legacy as arguably the best player in club history and one of the all-time greats in MLS history.
“Nico is unique because he does nothing but win,” said Waibel. “He leads people to win. He competes every day at practice to win. There’s no other word to truly describe him other than being a winner.”
Lodeiro and the cohort of Stefan Frei, Jordan Morris and Cristian Roldan are the heart and soul of this incredible Sounders run, the remaining four members from the 2016 title team. Then throw in 2017 acquisitions of Nouhou and Will Bruin, 2018’s Raúl Ruidíaz, 2019’s Xavier Arreaga, 2020’s João Paulo, Yeimar and the re-signing of Alex Roldan and 2021 veteran additions Fredy Montero and Kelyn Rowe. Every player on the 2020 edition has played in at least three finals.
“Part of the concept is the starting group, but then all the guys coming into the match have all this league experience that all rubs off on our young guys,” said Waibel. “Our young guys now don’t have a choice but to join into that confident performance. There is no way to be nervous when you’re surrounded by 10 or 11 other big-time pros. It’s a good balance.”
There was perhaps no better example of Seattle’s veterans laying for the young players to succeed than 16-year-old midfielder Obed Vargas in Leg 2 on Wednesday night. Replacing João Paulo, an MLS MVP Finalist in 2021, when the Brazilian went down injured was a tall task. Not only did Vargas survive the pressure of the occasion, he thrived and put in a composed performance that belied his age.
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A run like the Sounders had doesn’t happen by accident. It doesn’t happen in a vacuum. If it did, this wouldn’t be the first time an MLS team lifted the trophy. This isn’t lightning in a bottle and Seattle didn’t get lucky.
The Sounders won because they were simply the best team in the region, and they played like it.
Asked during Major League Soccer’s postgame show which moment will stick with him from this historic occasion, Head Coach Brian Schmetzer fought back tears as he heaped praise on his players and Sounders supporters.
“I’m just happy for them,” he said. “I’m happy for those fans. It’s a great feeling to watch the players get the credit that they deserve. They are the wins that deserve all of this. Credit to them.”