Sounders play comeback kings Pumas at own game in Concacaf Champions League final

Sounders play comeback kings Pumas at own game in Concacaf Champions League final

Photograph: Marco Ugarte/AP

When it comes to the Pumas UNAM, the only certainty is uncertainty. In that sense, Wednesday night’s first-leg of the Concacaf Champions League final lived up to its billing in a match filled with surprises, twists and VAR-filled drama. By the time the final whistle blew, the Pumas had thrown away a two-goal lead in a 2-2 draw that felt like a loss for a team who departed the Estadio Olímpico Universitario wondering what could have been. In contrast, Seattle head home for the second leg upbeat after escaping what had looked like a heavy defeat.

Drama peppered the match: four VAR reviews, and the same number of penalties, the last of which was scored in the ninth minute of added time by Nicolás Lodeiro to give the Sounders a crucial draw.

Considering that the match was played in front of a raucous crowd, Seattle’s comeback was no minor feat. The Seattle Times dubbed the draw as “stunning”, while Mexico City’s Record, bemoaned the fact that the Pumas “let the triumph escape.” Another Mexican sports daily, Esto, posed the question: “Goodbye to the glory?”

Tournament “glory” and overachievement has long been an apt description for the Pumas, a club typified by low-budget payrolls and promising young players, along with subpar regular season performances that are often coupled with jaw-dropping post-season upsets and comebacks. Just last month in the Concacaf Champions League quarter-finals, the Pumas came back from a 3-0 deficit against the New England Revolution to force a penalty shootout, which they duly won.

On Wednesday, though, it was the Pumas were on the wrong end of a dramatic comeback. Previewing the match, former USA international Herculez Gomez said the Pumas would “rather be an underdog”. That was not the case against the Sounders, and the Pumas were leading 2-0 as the match entered the final stages. The Pumas looked uncomfortable in the driver’s seat and it was the Sounders who summoned the underdog spirit in front of a hostile crowd, which acted as a 12th man and helped spur their team to an early lead, as the rain drove down in Mexico City. The home fans tossed beer and yelled expletives in unison at any significant call that went against them. In the 77th minute, the Sounders forced a handball and Lodeiro cooly converted the first of his two successful penalties of the night. He was the right man for the job: he has converted 92% of his penalties over his career (in comparison Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo’s conversion rates are 77% and 83% respectively).

The comeback was not a complete surprise. Seattle’s coach, Brian Schmetzer, was upbeat after the match and proudly pointed to Seattle’s “never quit” culture. And his team have a history of comebacks to rival the Pumas: in the 2020 MLS Western Conference final they overturned a 2-0 deficit to beat Minnesota United 3-2 in a match that Schmetzer dubbed “one of the best [Sounders] games ever”.

Schmetzer lauded Lodeiro’s “mental toughness” as a counter-example to those who believed his team were intimidated by the atmosphere inside Estadio Olímpico Universitario. And now the Pumas are the ones who have a hostile crowd to face at Seattle’s Lumen Field, where the Sounders have drawn crowds close to 70,000 for big games. They’ll also be conscious of the fact that they have an unimpressive record against MLS clubs north of the border (three wins, two draws and five losses).

The Pumas may well relish reverting to their familiar status as underdogs and will draw comfort from the fact that they have the tournament’s leading scorer, Argentina’s Juan Ignacio Dinenno. He scored both of his team’s goals on Wednesday, including the only non-penalty goal of the night, a very impressive header off a perfect cross from Jesus Rivas. Seattle also have a poor record against Liga MX teams (seven wins, three draws and nine losses) and are trying to become the first MLS team to win the tournament in two decades. However, they will have a slight mental advantage as hosts in the second leg, particularly after their comeback in Mexico City.

Regardless of the outcome of the second leg, one of these teams will make their debut at the Club World Cup. The Seattle Sounders official Twitter page addressed the high stakes involved with the following statement: “CCL Final: It’ s A Big F’ing Deal.”

It certainly will be and, inevitably, history will be made.