Stefan Frei spotted a difference he didn’t like at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas.
Sounders FC usually inflicts its will on opponents. But there’s another level that can be achieved. Club Leon demonstrated that Wednesday in the Leagues Cup final.
La Fiera made three second-half substitutions and scored a flurry of goals to defeat Seattle 3-2 for Leon’s first international title.
“I still sense when we face Mexican sides how aggressive and how hungry they are,” Frei said. “There’s still a bit of difference when it comes to opponents we find in our league. That’s one thing that would be really nice for us to be able to absorb into our own squad — that hunger, that drive, that arrogance at times. Then being able to back it up, too, obviously. It’s a good lesson.
“This was an opportunity to make history for our franchise. … Winning the first one in something is extra special because it will only be done once. Our franchise has not won an international trophy at this point in its existence. It was an opportunity.”
Leagues Cup pits Mexico’s top-flight league against MLS. Seattle defeated Liga MX sides Tigres UANL and Santos Laguna en route to Wednesday’s final. Club Leon, which was established in 1944, defeated two MLS sides and Pumas UNAM in hoisting its first international trophy.
Midfielder Cristian Roldan opened the scoring. He received a cross from Jimmy Medranda outside the keeper’s box and sliced a left-footed shot into goal in the 48th minute.
The strike was Roldan’s third of the season across all competitions. It’s also Medranda’s third assist across all matches this season.
The score livened the indoor stadium with a bipartisan crowd of 24,824 in attendance.
Leon coach Ariel Holan made three substitutions in the 59th minute that completely changed the match. Ecuadorian national Angel Mena was able work the Sounders defense into a scramble to score in the 61st minute. Later, Mena drew a penalty from Seattle defender Shane O’Neill, the striker nailing the penalty kick in the 81st minute.
Teammate Emanuel Gigliotti closed Leon’s scoring with a shot off a rebound in the 85th minute.
Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer subbed Nico Benezet into the match in the 83rd minute and he scored in second-half stoppage time.
Sounders striker Raul Ruidiaz looked to have the equalizer but missed and time expired.
Play was stopped late in the second-half due to a section of the crowd chanting a homophobic slur in Spanish. The stadium was warned if it happened again — typically on goal kicks — the match would be suspended and the teams would be taken to their locker rooms. Mexico’s national team has been penalized by FIFA multiple times due to its supporters making the chant.
The Sounders opened the match aggressive and outshot Club Leon 4-2 in the opening half. Seattle also was booked for three yellow cards before the 30-minute mark. Xavier Arreaga (10th minute), Joao Paulo (15th minute) and Ruidiaz (27th minute) all had to play with caution after being called for bad fouls.
“That put us in a (position) of thinking we’re not going to be as aggressive as we would like to be,” Sounders forward Fredy Montero said. “I would like to see referees that don’t give yellow cards. It was a big change. We didn’t expect that to happen so soon. But we competed against a good Mexican club.”
Although the Sounders created multiple chances early, it was Club Leon that should’ve entered halftime with a goal. Mena lined up for a corner kick in stoppage time and sent a nice cross to winger Jean Meneses.
Frei was off his line and Montero played behind Meneses, leaving open space in front of the goal. But Meneses’ header bounced inches wide of the post.
Wednesday’s match was a final, so naturally Schmetzer started his top players. A tweak was at wingback, where Medranda replaced Brad Smith on the left side. The latter helped Seattle win its 2019 MLS Cup title, but Schmetzer said the decision was tactical due to the way Leon plays. Smith subbed into Wednesday’s match for Medranda in the 68th minute.
“At 1-0, I think we’re a good enough defensive team to close the game out,” Schmetzer said. “At 1-0, I thought there were a couple of opportunities — a set piece, a couple of half-chances, maybe a decision on the final pass. But I never micromanage the decision the players make on the field.”
Leagues Cup is in its third season, but the 2020 tournament was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Beginning in 2023, the single-elimination event will feature all clubs from MLS and Liga MX in a monthlong tournament. The prize money will increase with each round and the top three finishers will qualify for the CONCACAF Champions League.
Mexican side Cruz Azul defeated Tigres before 20,132 fans at Sam Boyd Stadium in Vegas for the inaugural Leagues Cup title in 2019.
The Sounders (13-5-6) return to MLS play with a road match against Sporting Kansas City (13-5-7) on Sunday. SKC leads the Sounders by a point in the Western Conference standings.
“Everybody is sad, disappointed with the feeling we fell short,” Montero said. “But knowing there’s another opportunity (to win a title), we’re going to be focused on MLS and the next game. Our mentality has to be to keep competing at a high level and fight for that first place.”