Perception is hard to change.
Line up the championships and popularity and there are some significant similarities between the Sounders FC and Liga MX powerhouse Tigres UANL. But despite their MLS dominance, Seattle is an extreme underdog in Tuesday’s international face-off.
Leagues Cup was revived this season after being canceled amid the COVID-19 pandemic last year. The tournament between MLS and Mexico’s top-flight league debuted in 2019 with Liga MX’s Cruz Azul defeating Tigres for the inaugural championship.
After undergoing some format changes — including cutting the field down to four clubs each from the countries — Seattle will make its first appearance in hosting Tigres at Lumen Field.
“It’s a great way to measure ourselves,” said Garth Lagerwey, the Sounders president of soccer and general manager.
Tigres and the Sounders both have prestige. Pre-pandemic, the clubs easily packed 40,000 fans into their stadiums and are the modern-day leaders in their respective leagues. Their ownership groups also invest into the clubs. Tigres, which is located in the northeastern state of Nuevo Leon, is affiliated with the university in the state and operated by CEMEX, a multinational building materials company.
While the Sounders are valued higher than Tigres ($405 million versus $65.67 million as of May 2020, according to data compiled by Statista), less salary cap restrictions in Liga MX aides in Tigres’ player market value being double of the Sounders at $82.39 million.
The Mexican side has won seven league titles. Seasons are divided in half, the 2019 Clausura (Closing) championship being the most recent. That qualified Tigres for the FIFA Club World Cup, where it advanced to the Final for the first time in team history. Tigres lost to FC Bayern Munich 1-0 in February for the championship, which was played in Qatar.
The Sounders, who are four-time MLS Western Conference champions, have yet to show prominence on the international stage. In 2013, the Rave Green did defeat Tigres in their CONCACAF Champions League opening-round series.
Seattle is 4-8-2 all-time against Liga MX teams. And its most recent international competition was a flop in losing to Honduras’ CD Olympia on aggregate scoring in February 2020.
“We don’t have to sign highly marketable stars because we have such a massive knowledgeable fan base that if we sign the best player, our fans, so far, have embraced that,” Lagerwey said. “It feeds into the ethos of our community. We can do it smarter, we can do it cheaper, we can do it more efficiently.
“Tigres is without a doubt one of the best clubs in the region. But we’ve got to right the ship. We need a win (and) this is a tournament we want to win, not just beat Tigres. Hopefully try to win the whole tournament. It would be cool to play the Final in Vegas. We also have to think about always trying to increase the profile of the Sounders brand. The way to do that is to win international competitions.”
Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said in July that he wanted to field his best roster for the match, which will air on ESPN2 at 7 p.m. The club saw a cameo return of captain Nico Lodeiro in a draw against FC Dallas on Wednesday. It’s unlikely he’s ready for a start and Seattle will likely be without one of its top defenders in Nouhou, who’s suffering from an adductor injury.
There’s an advantage in forward Raul Ruidiaz having played against Tigres when he starred for Morelia (2016-2018) before signing with the Sounders. In the two seasons, Ruidiaz jockeyed with Tigres striker Andre-Pierre Gignac to be the league’s leading scorer, the Peruvian topping the Frenchman with 20 goals during the 2017-2018 season.
One of Ruidiaz’s all-time greatest goals is his banger from distance in February 2018 against Tigres. Ruidiaz leads MLS’s Golden Boot race with 11 goals this season.
“Beating a Mexican side is really important for us confidence-wise,” Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan said. “They’ve had the better (results) the last 10, 20 years. …
“You see with Champions League games, these MLS teams are getting better each and every year. So any time we can beat a Mexican side — whether it’s the U.S. national team or a club — it’s a great feeling. A feeling that we’re improving each and every year.”
This month could show MLS has reached the flowering stage of its growth in the global soccer world. CONCACAF (the Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football) Champions League remains the headlining tournament where Mexico dominates.
Only four MLS clubs have reached the Champions League final. Five reached the quarterfinal stage this season, but only the Philadelphia Union advanced. Their semifinal round against Liga MX’s flagship Club America begins Thursday.
Liga MX and MLS will also pit their best against each other for an All-Star Game Aug. 25 in Los Angeles. Two players from Tigres received a nod while the Sounders have six, but Nouhou likely won’t play.
The U.S., however, already has two wins against Mexico this year. The U.S. men’s national team defeated Mexico for the inaugural CONCACAF Nations League tournament title in June. Roldan was part of the USMNT that won the Gold Cup title by beating Mexico earlier this month. Tigres fullback Luis “Chaka” Rodriguez started for his country.
“There’s an increasing consumption of MLS in Mexico and there’s an increasing consumption of Liga MX in the United States,” Lagerwey said. “Playing these types of games, these types of meaningful games with real stakes — this is the future of the league.
“Maybe eventually, we go down the road and there’s some kind, I don’t know if we ever get to a merger, but there’s some kind of long-term partnership between Liga MX and MLS. But certainly we’re dipping the toe in the water here and we’re trying things out. I’m really excited not only by what this game is but by what this competition could become.”
That would include a change in perception.