Sounders are built to write history

Much has been made of the concept of “match winners” in recent years. The fairly straightforward mindset is that the more a team has, the better equipped they are to win important matches, make deep runs in the MLS Playoffs or perform well in cup tournaments.

That the Seattle Sounders tend to have their fair share of these players helps explain why they have done so well in these situations.

While their track record may provide a satisfactory autopsy and help set future expectations, these players still need to actually perform to keep the results coming. You only really know when a match-winner-best days are behind them in retrospect.

Based on Wednesday’s performance, it looks like the Sounders still have their share of players performing at that level. No one was bigger than Stefan Frei and Raúl Ruidíaz by sending the Sounders to their first continental final in the club’s history and potentially set themselves up to become the first MLS team to win the Concacaf Champions League.

Frei had a special vintage performance. The one-time MLS Cup MVP was credited with seven saves, six of which came on shots from inside the penalty area. He was at his absolute best when New York City FC increased their pressure and unleashed a flurry of chances unlike anything else that the Sounders have faced in recent times. The NYCFC generated 3.29 expected goals – nearly one goal more than the Sounders had allowed in any game over the past two years – but only found the back of the net once.

“Probably not the way we wanted it to happen,” Frei said. “That goal gave them momentum. Some teams throw a kitchen sink after it, today they threw a bathtub after it. We were able to resist things but not break. We make a great effort. They had us under one big pressure.”

There were no big saves, but the biggest was perhaps in the 73rd minute, just when NYCFC was apparently on the verge of taking control of the game and suddenly seemed to be able to erase what had become a three-goal deficit. Taty Castellanos strode in behind the Sounders defense and then sent a square ball through the box that found Talles Magno all alone in front of goal for the kind of chances players dream of. Jackson Ragen had been able to reject the pass slightly, but not enough to cut off Magno, whose shot went back across the goal, just as he certainly would. Frei came off aggressively from his line in an attempt to cut the angle and kicked his left leg out just enough to save the shot with his foot.

Ruidíaz’s match-winning moment came in the first half, a single-touch shot from near the penalty spot after a cross from Nouhou. It was Ruidíaz’s first goal since November 1, 2021, ending a five-game goalless draw that was a draw for the longest of his Sounders career.

“We’ve had to have a lot of players stepping forward at critical moments,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer said. “We’ve had a tough road. We’ve needed everyone. I congratulate that group for doing many, many good things.”

Just as important it was for the Sounders to get the great performances from their great players, what seems to consistently set them apart from many of their MLS peers is how players up and down their roster are able to step into these moments. Nouhou had only two assists in his professional career, but delivered an absolute penny to Ruidíaz; Ragen has played less than 600 minutes in his MLS career, but consistently stood up to teammates as the match became physical; Kelyn Rowe came off the bench to make several big plays, including two clearances on the corner after Frei’s big save.

The secret is apparently that everyone believes they are capable of becoming “match winners”.

“That’s why players come to this organization because you ultimately want to play for trophies,” Frei said. “This franchise has a high standard. Sometimes it means pressure. Players enjoy that pressure. We appreciate that we have opportunities to be in pressured moments. For some players, it never comes. They play for 10-15 years and never have a chance for a trophy. ”

If the Sounders are able to finish this, it feels deserved. The Sounders are currently undefeated during CCL games – 3-0-3 – as they navigate a path that has taken them through a traditional Central American power, one of the Liga MX’s best teams and the defending MLS Cup winners. They have surpassed these opponents 13-4 despite missing some of their top players in many of these matches.

The Pumas may prove to be Sounders’ biggest challenge, a historic Mexican power with a massive fan base whose own race to the final potentially represents a long-awaited return to glory. The seven-time Liga MX winners have not won any title since 2011.

If there is one MLS team that one can trust will not be exhausted at the moment, it might just be a Sounders team that has to play in its sixth final in seven years.

“The fact that I was able to attend 2016, a historic moment in the franchise, there are very few selected opportunities to make history,” Frei said. “It’s gone. There’s still one for MLS. If you can be it [to win CCL first], it’s going to be huge for your career, for the franchise, for everyone involved. What a huge opportunity. “

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