For Garth Lagerwey, the flashbacks are unavoidable.
Eleven years ago, the Seattle Sounders GM and president of soccer had a similar role with Real Salt Lake, and in 2011 the squad he put together was on the cusp of history. The final of that year’s CONCACAF Champions League pitted RSL against Monterrey, and an 89th-minute goal from Javier Morales secured a 2-2 away draw and put Salt Lake in the driver’s seat. Alas, it wasn’t to be. RSL squandered some glorious chances in the return leg, while then-Chile international Humberto Suazo netted the game-winner in first-half stoppage time, pouncing on a loose ball in the box.
On Wednesday, Seattle will find itself in an almost identical scenario to Real Salt Lake when it squares off against Pumas in the second leg of this year’s CCL final. A stoppage-time penalty from Nicolas Lodeiro helped the Sounders secure a 2-2 draw in the first leg. Now it is the Sounders who are in a position to make history, and become the first MLS team to win the CCL since 2002, when the format changed to involve home and away fixtures in the knockout rounds.
“It’s a little sense of deja vu,” Lagerwey told ESPN. “Obviously we want a happy ending to this movie.”
He added, “It’s our chance at immortality, doing something that no one’s ever done before that will be remembered forever.”
There have been close calls since RSL’s near miss. CF Montreal reached the final in 2015. Toronto FC was a penalty-kick shootout away from triumphing in 2018. LAFC came close in 2020, although the pandemic meant those games were played on U.S. soil.
But as much as CCL futility has remained, much has changed in MLS throughout the years, namely the roster composition and spending by the league’s teams. According to data provided by the MLS Players Association, in 2011, RSL’s total guaranteed compensation for that season was $3.32 million. While it’s easy to write that off as being a symptom of a team that skewed towards the frugal side, Seattle that season wasn’t much better, at $3.4m. In 2021, the most recent year for which data is available, Seattle’s total guaranteed compensation is $13.59m, more than four times RSL’s 2011 amount. That is by no means the highest mark either, with teams like Toronto exceeding $20m some seasons. All of this has allowed MLS sides to creep closer to their Liga MX counterparts.
ESPN television analyst Herculez Gomez made a habit of tormenting MLS sides in the CCL when playing for Santos Laguna and Tijuana in the early- to mid-2010s. He notes that the depth in MLS teams is much different than when he played.
“There was, in that moment, a huge difference between players,” he said. “Players one through eight, you’re like, ‘Hey, these guys are very competent. They’re very good.’ Nine through 16, back then, you’re like, ‘They’ve never played in a big game. They’ve never won anything in their life. They don’t make money.’ You can tell there’s a stark contrast. And it was a deer in the headlights look from a lot of these players. And you knew it was over.
“Now, I think that’s changed. You can dig into the bench and it’s a 12th, 13th, 14th guy, and you’re like, ‘These are very good players.'”
The era of Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) has had a significant impact on what teams can spend, and on what part of the roster. But for Seattle, the influx of graduates of the team’s academy has helped improve the quality of depth as well. That includes on-field contributions from homegrowns like Jackson Ragen and Obed Vargas, who have each played in multiple CCL games. Their impact also changes the calculus of the salary cap.
“If you have a consistent pipeline of players, you can build a more economically efficient team under the salary cap,” Lagerwey said.
He points out that Seattle has 12 players on the roster age 23 or under, half of those are age 20 or under, and these are individuals who can legitimately contribute. That has a ripple effect throughout the roster, with Lagerwey estimating that academy graduates are “saving” the team about $1m in cap space.
“It allows you to take your budget and spend more money on the top players. A lot of that rise in salary is those top players are making more money now,” he said about the academy’s impact. “And that was always the disparity, right? It was Mexican clubs could pay more to their starting lineups. And now we’re really able to go toe to toe on depth as well, because those kids when they come through, they’ve all played multiple years in your system.”
These investments have been made for years now. It’s just a matter of when — or if — that steady drip will accumulate to the extent that it will finally make its way over the dam in the form of a CCL title. And the reality is that until it does, there will always be questions. Even now, Liga MX sides still have rung up a sizable advantage. Since the CCL began utilizing a home-and-away format in 2002, Mexican clubs have prevailed over their MLS counterparts 42 times in 53 attempts.
Since the advent of TAM, the record for MLS sides is better — nine wins in 31 tries — but still sizably in Liga MX’s favor. This time, however, there is a sense that Wednesday’s matchup favors Seattle. Pumas doesn’t have the funding that it once had, with the likes of Club America and Tigres still well on top in that category. It instead has had to rely on its academy and picking out the occasional diamond on the transfer market.
All of which makes Wednesday’s second leg an opportunity that goes beyond just making history. There is the impact a capacity crowd — as of this writing there are less than 1,000 tickets left — could have on Seattle’s bit to host games at the 2026 World Cup. The effect on the Sounders organization would be immense as well.
“I think it’s an absolute game changer,” Lagerwey said. “If we’re able to win this thing, and we’re able to then go play meaningful games against European champions [in the World Club Cup] and things like that … I think when you think about player recruitment, and how you build the team and the staff going forward, it’s pretty hard to conclude anything other than being on that global stage will help the Sounders and will help the community of Seattle.”
Lagerwey described preparing for a Club World Cup as a “champagne problem,” but first things first. The Sounders are hoping there will be some conspicuous consumption come Wednesday.