There has been a lot of talk about the term “match winners” in recent years. The fairly simple thought is that the more a team has, the better equipped it is to win important games, make deep runs in the MLS playoffs, or perform well in cup competitions.
The fact that the Seattle Sounders tend to have their fair share of these players helps explain why they’ve done so well in these situations.
While their backgrounds can provide a satisfying autopsy and help set future expectations, these players still need to perform for results to keep coming. You only really know when a game-winner’s best days are behind them in retrospect.
Based on Wednesday’s performance, it looks like the Sounders still have their fair share of high performers at this level. None were greater than Stefan Frei and Raúl Ruidíaz in sending the Sounders to their first continental final in club history and potentially preparing to become the first MLS side to win the Concacaf Champions League.
Frei had a particularly vintage performance. The former MLS Cup MVP was credited with seven saves, six of them on shots from inside the penalty area. He was at his best down the home stretch when New York City FC upped their pressure and unleashed a barrage of chances unlike anything the Sounders have faced in recent memory. NYCFC generated 3.29 expected goals – almost a goal more than the Sounders had allowed in any game in the past two years – but only found the back of the net once. time.
“Probably not the way we wanted,” Frei said. “That goal gave them momentum. Some teams throw in a kitchen sink, today they throw in a bathtub. We were able to resist things but not break. We have put in a lot of effort. They put a lot of pressure on us. »
There was no shortage of big saves, but perhaps the biggest was in the 73rd minute, just when NYCFC were seemingly on the verge of taking control of the game and suddenly seemed able to erase what had become a three-goal deficit. Taty Castellanos slipped behind the Sounders defense then sent a square ball across the box that found Talles Magno all alone in front of goal for the kind of chance players crave. Jackson Ragen was able to slightly deflect the pass but not enough to put off Magno, whose shot returned across the goal as he surely wanted. Frei came off his line aggressively in a bid to cut the angle and kicked his left leg just enough to save the shot with his foot.
This backup will decrease in #Fishfinders the story as one of the most important for this franchise.
Stefan Frei was absolutely crucial in last night’s 1-1 draw against #NYCFChis composure and ability to go big when shutting down the shooter is brilliant.
-Niko Moreno (@ELROLONW) April 14, 2022
Ruidíaz’s moment of victory came in the first half, when he hit a shot near the penalty spot from a Nouhou cross. It was Ruidíaz’s first goal since Nov. 1, 2021, ending a five-game scoreless drought that has been tied for the longest of his Sounders career.
“We had to get a lot of players to come forward at critical times,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer said. “We had a difficult road. We needed everyone. I commend this group for doing many, many good things.
As important as it has been for the Sounders to get those big performances from their big players, what seems to consistently separate them from many of their MLS peers is how players up and down their list are able to intervene in these moments. Nouhou got just two assists in his professional career but delivered an absolute dime to Ruidíaz; Ragen played less than 600 minutes in his MLS career, but always defended his teammates when the game got physical; Kelyn Rowe came off the bench to make several big plays, including two goal-line clearances on the corner after Frei’s big save.
The secret, it seems, is that everyone believes he can “win the game.”
“That’s why players come to this organization because at the end of the day you want to play for trophies,” Frei said. “This franchise has a high standard. Sometimes it means pressure. The players appreciate this pressure. We appreciate the fact that we have opportunities to be in times of pressure. For some players, that never comes. They play for 10 to 15 years and never have the chance to win a trophy.
If the Sounders are able to complete this, it seems deserved. The Sounders are currently unbeaten in the CCL game – 3-0-3 – while navigating a path that has taken them through a traditional powerhouse in Central America, one of the best teams in Liga MX and winners in MLS Cup title. They outscored those opponents 13-4 despite missing some of their best players for many of those games.
The Pumas could prove to be the biggest challenge for the Sounders, a historic Mexican powerhouse with a massive fanbase whose own run to the final potentially represents a long-awaited return to glory. The seven-time Liga MX winners haven’t won a title since 2011.
If there’s one MLS team to trust that won’t be consumed by the moment, it could be a Sounders team playing in their sixth final in seven years.
“The fact that I was able to participate in 2016, a historic moment in the franchise, there are very few opportunities to make history,” Frei said. “That one is gone. There’s one more for MLS. If you can be the one [to win CCL first], it’s going to be huge for your career, for the franchise, for everyone involved. What a huge opportunity.