There may be skepticism among soccer enthusiasts, but for Sounders FC, reaching the Leagues Cup championship match Wednesday is not only significant, it’s essential.
Organizers announced Tuesday that beginning in 2023, the tournament that pits Mexico’s top-flight Liga MX against MLS will qualify the top three finishers to the CONCACAF Champions League competition. Liga MX and MLS will pause their seasons for one month so that all teams can vie for the Leagues Cup title.
But this season, the current eight-team format is a stand-alone event. Some feel it’s slightly redundant to the Campeones Cup, where the past season’s winner of MLS and Liga MX plays each other. The Columbus Crew will host Mexico’s Cruz Azul for that title at Lower.com Field next week.
The Sounders, however, have long had a goal of being viewed as a big-time organization globally. Filling their trophy case with international titles is key.
Hoisting the Leagues Cup’s 22-pound trophy that features symbols to represent Canada, Mexico and the U.S. would be a first for Seattle. The Sounders lead MLS with seven league and U.S. Open Cup trophies combined since joining MLS in 2009.
“The fact that this is a club that has big ambitions, has always been fighting for trophies was one of the main parts of why I wanted to come here,” said Sounders keeper Stefan Frei, who was traded to Seattle from Toronto FC in 2013. “There are very few opportunities to win silverware, and this is one of them. We didn’t just come to the training pitch and make our own trophy and now we have a silly trophy. This is one where everyone knew what the trophy meant and there’s good opponents.”
The setting brings its own glitz. Seattle will play Club Leon at Allegiant Stadium, a $1.9 billion facility adjacent to the Las Vegas Strip.
The stadium was built for Raiders and UNLV football, but the CONCACAF Gold Cup final in August was the first large-scale game in the state-of-art building. Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan played 54 minutes of the U.S. men’s national team’s win against Mexico for the title.
“(Wednesday’s) game will be fast because the field, from what I remember, was perfect,” Roldan said of the indoor stadium. There were 61,514 fans in attendance for the Gold Cup. “It’s a beautiful stadium that will add a little bit more intensity to the game. It’s a big moment. You’re playing in a big city, a party city, so the atmosphere should be good. At the end of the day, we have to be focused because it’s going to be a tough one.”
Leon was established in 1944 and is a five-time Mexico champion, although the last was the 1991-92 season. Liga MX seasons are split in half, and Leon won the opening part of the 2020 slate.
The Mexican side is currently 4-3-2 and fourth in the league standings, losing a match Saturday. Leon outscored its Leagues Cup opponents Sporting Kansas City and Pumas UNAM 8-1 to advance to Wednesday’s title game.
Midfielder Angel Mena, who competed for Ecuador’s national team this summer alongside Sounders defender Xavier Arreaga, leads Leon with four goals this season.
The Sounders (13-5-6) also enter the Leagues Cup championship after a loss, dropping a road match to Real Salt Lake on Saturday. Seattle remains second in MLS Western Conference standings and is the healthiest it’s been this season.
Captain Nico Lodeiro underwent a second minor knee surgery Monday and is the only first-choice Sounders player unavailable for selection. But striker Raul Ruidiaz, who’s second in MLS scoring with 14 goals, did play full-time in two matches last week, including scoring the game-winner against Santos Laguna to book the ticket to Vegas.
Wednesday will be the first meeting between Leon and the Sounders. It’s also the first time an MLS club has played for the title in the tournament’s short history. It was established in 2019 with Cruz Azul defeating Tigres UANL before 20,132 fans at Sam Boyd Stadium in Vegas.
Leagues Cup was canceled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This means a lot,” Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said. “I’ve sat here many times and said we’re a big club — one of the biggest in MLS and we try to win every game. We’ve always been competitive in every tournament or try to be. This is no different. The players are excited and maybe that was part of the problem with RSL, you never know.”
Sounders midfielder Danny Leyva received a start against Real Salt Lake and Wednesday’s match is a homecoming. The Vegas native left home at age 13 to join the Sounders academy, becoming the youngest to sign a first-team contract at age 15 in 2019.
“It’s something special,” Leyva said. “I’m a young kid from Las Vegas. Having all the fans and the family being able to go watch the game Wednesday is going to be a unique opportunity, especially a final. It doesn’t happen often so it’s a special thing.”