Because all Seattle Sounders games are preceded by the raucous March to the Match parade fronted by the Emerald City Supporters, Wednesday night’s CONCACAF Champions League final looked as though it contained considerable consequence even before it began.
There nearly were 69,000 fans at Lumen Field for the game against Pumas of Liga MX. That, as well, made it appear the game had all the heft of an illustrious sporting occasion. And then it began, and it proceeded, and ultimately ended with the Sounders winning the second leg of the series by an overwhelming three-goal shutout that clinched a 5-2 aggregate victory for the first championship ever in this event by a club from the United States, by one from Major League Soccer.
There have been occasions during the last dozen years when it seemed as though the inability of an MLS team to claim this championship has been an obsession more for the American soccer media than for fans following the sport. Games in the group and elimination stages haven’t always been well attended or widely viewed, and not just when LAFC fell to Tigres during the quarantined 2020 final.
It was not even two weeks ago Sounders general manager Garth Lagerway appeared on the field with a microphone in hand before an MLS home game and spoke to the crowd about the value of the Champions League final, imploring fans to attend that game above all others in the 2022 season. “This game on May 4 is for immortality,” he exclaimed, with no fear of embellishment.
Seattle Sounders claim the Concacaf throne and punch their ticket to FIFA Club World Cup! 🙌👑
Relive history in our 90′ in 90″ ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/d6hRKNGb4R
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) May 5, 2022
The winner of this tournament qualifies automatically to compete in the FIFA Club World Cup, which has been going on since the year 2000 but also is widely ignored by fans more caught up in midwinter with the activities in England’s Premier League or Spain’s La Liga or Italy’s Serie A. It’s not yet clear when or where the next one will be staged, because the Club World Cup’s customary December date now is too close to the unusual date for the genuine World Cup that will be staged in Qatar.
MORE: When is the next FIFA Club World Cup?
So is the CCL a tournament nobody watches to determine who enters a tournament nobody watches? Or is this victory a massive step forward for MLS in its enduring fight for relevance with American fans, a battle waged not only against teams from the four historically established men’s team sports but also against those who play soccer in the major European leagues or Mexico’s wildly popular Liga MX?
“I said to the guys before that the first thing only happens once, I think, in history,” the Sounders’ spectacular goalkeeper, Stefan Frei, told Fox Sports. “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.”
“There will be many more Concacaf Champions League winners, but there is only one that does it for the first time for MLS.”@SoundersFC‘ GK Stefan Frei shares his thoughts after winning CCL ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/hbu2FgYS0S
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) May 5, 2022
It may not be a line in bold type, and it won’t represent a revolutionary step forward for the league. Progress such as that MLS is endeavoring toward is composed of these events that can draw a fleeting headline without igniting overwhelming change: Landon Donovan’s voluntary return from Europe, the signing of David Beckham, the investment in retrieving Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey from Europe, the continued expansion and construction of soccer stadiums.
MLS teams had come close before in Champions League. The tournament in this format began in 2008, and three years later Real Salt Lake returned home for the second of a two-leg series hoping to break a 2-2 aggregate deadlock. A 1-0 shutout loss ruined its hopes. In 2018, a Toronto FC squad widely considered the best in the league’s history went all the way to penalty kicks before falling to Chivas. LAFC scored in the 61st minute of the 2020 final and was just a half-hour from celebrating but surrendered two late goals and lost.
The Sounders were only the fifth MLS team to reach this stage of the tournament. In the preceding decade, 17 of the 20 finalists were from Liga MX.
History!! What a team 🏆 @SoundersFC https://t.co/N6aJOPgFHr
— Jordan Morris (@JmoSmooth13) May 5, 2022
MORE: How the Sounders knocked off Pumas to win CCL title
It’s not that MLS clubs never have beaten their Mexican opponents in competitive matches. Columbus Crew SC defeated Cruz Azul last summer in the Campeones Cup, which matches the reigning champions in the two leagues. The New England Revolution claimed the 2008 edition of the short-lived “SuperLiga” competition that included top-ranked teams from the two leagues. Those events often were dismissed as contrived, however, and the Champions League was considered more organic because, well, the center of the soccer universe has one just like it. With the same name, even.
The structure of CONCACAF’s Champions League generally has favored Liga MX squads over those in MLS. The tournament’s concluding stages occur toward the beginning of the U.S. season, when teams may be fresh but are not yet fully developed. Mexico plays a fall-winter-spring season, and its teams may be more fatigued or depleted but also have had the ability to discover the best version of themselves.
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The Sounders overcame all of that. They have played only seven MLS games to date, and they’ve won just two. This competition has been the greater focus for the moment, and they won or drew every game in the elimination stages.
It was disappointing that Seattle coach Brian Schmetzer deflected questions about the impact of this victory. “Give me six months,” he said, clearly failing to understand how the media prefer to handle the broader questions in any sport.
— Chris Francis (@CFrancisKIRO7) May 5, 2022
The USA is not a country accustomed to measuring its professional leagues against those from other nations. There really isn’t competition for the NFL or Major League Baseball, and the NBA and NHL clearly are preeminent in sports played more globally.
MLS still is a young league, even as it inches closer to its 30th birthday. Liga MX has been around since 1943. They had a half-century head start.
The Sounders’ victory does not mean MLS has caught up in whatever competition exists between the two leagues. It does mean the league won this round. And the only way to close the gap is to continue marching forward.