SEATTLE – May was already going to be an impactful month for Nico Lodeiro. In the opening leg of the CONCACAF Champions League final on Wednesday, he ensured the Sounders FC have a chance to add to the occasion.
The club captain had a brace in the matchup in Mexico City to make the series level with Liga MX power Pumas UNAM. The second leg will be played at Lumen Field on Wednesday.
Both of Lodeiro’s goals were off penalty kicks in final 13 minutes of the game at Estadio Olimpico de Universitario.
The series equalizer was in second-half stoppage time. Lodeiro – after jawing with Pumas keeper Alfredo Talavera – collected the ball, tucked it under his jersey and gave the symbolic pregnant belly a kiss. The goal celebration was dedicated to his wife Micaela, who is expected to give birth to the couple’s third child May 20.
“I’m sending a kiss for her and also for Ignacia,” said Lodeiro, as translated from Spanish, of the planned name for his daughter.
The Sounders expect the momentous month to begin with the club’s first CCL title – needing a home win next week to capture MLS’s first victory in this iteration of the regional tournament. Lodeiro made the task easier with his two goals from the spot to match Pumas forward Juan Dinenno’s brace, which also included a made penalty kick.
Lodeiro is 20 for 21 in penalties since joining the Sounders in 2016. But the goals Wednesday covered a dicey match for Seattle.
While Talavera had an incredible save against Sounders striker Raul Ruidiaz at the mouth of the goal in the 51st minute, the Peruvian joined Jordan Morris and Joao Paulo in confounding misses. Lodeiro and Albert Rusnak were jammed in the middle, unable to help the Sounders craft shots, and there were defensive lapses that could’ve conceded more than the two goals.
“Sometimes when our team wants to win so badly, sometimes that can be a negative,” Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said. “That’s something that might be human nature. They want to play so well. They want to score the goal. They want to defend well. Sometimes they don’t execute and play to their potential. We’ll talk about that.”
Here’s what to expect for the decisive leg of the CCL final at Lumen next week:
This is the first time CONCACAF has used VAR (Video Assisted Referee) in a final. Ismael Cornejo, with assistant Tatiana Guzman, were busy in the booth.
Three of the goals in Wednesday’s 2-2 draw were the result of VAR flagging infractions not spotted on the field. The biggest was in favor of the Sounders when midfielder Cristian Roldan was kicked by Pumas defender Efrain Velarde in the box in second-half stoppage time.
Roldan was fouled a game-high five times in the match and has sustained the most fouls in the tournament at 16 overall. Velarde’s foul was clear, but Roldan takes offense to spectators not seeing embellishing as part of the game.
The Sounders used his veteran savvy in the second leg against New York City FC to advance to the finals. With away goals not counting as a tiebreaker in the CCL finals, more pleas for review are likely a given in Leg 2.
Pumas coach Andres Lillini made a first-half substitution after defender Alan Mozo suffered a leg injury. Mozo was shown walking down stairs with help during the broadcast and may not be ruled out for the second leg at Lumen.
“They’re going to do tests to see how serious it is,” Lillini said, as translated from Spanish. “It’s a sprain. He told me that it hurts, but he doesn’t have a lot of pain.”
Jesus Rivas, a 19-year-old defender, subbed on for Mozo and wasn’t a drop in skill. Rivas had the perfectly placed cross to Dinenno for the header in the 48th minute that gave Pumas a 2-0 lead.
Lillini could have some tough choices but is expected to slot center back Arturo Ortiz in the lineup for the second leg. The Mexican international served a one-game suspension due to being sent off in the semifinal against Cruz Azul.
Schmetzer doesn’t think his side needs too many tactical adjustments. Center back Yeimar Gomez Andrade returning to the starting lineup was the only rotation change, the Colombian returning from a high ankle sprain suffered in March.
Yeimar did miss the aerial interception on Rivas’ cross and was shown the yellow card that led to Dinenno’s penalty kick, but those are missteps that can be fixed. Wednesday was Yeimar’s first full 90 minutes of play since March 8.
“I’m not so sure our tactics were wrong,” Schmetzer said. “There were many moments in the game where our team didn’t play up to their potential. I thought there were some times where we were too rushed, especially at 0-0.
“We like to go, go, go and maybe we could’ve sustained more possession. Found a little rhythm to the game – go to one side, come to the other side – we really didn’t do that in moments where I thought we should’ve. It’s just getting back to our team understanding what we’re good at because (Wednesday) I don’t think we were at our best.”
All about that turf
While most soccer players prefer to play on grass, the drenched field at Estadio Olimpico de Universitario caused the Sounders some troubles. Gauging angles and pace for some runs that looked like they could be converted into goals were off, although Seattle completed 80.4% of its passes.
The weather is expected to be overcast and dry next week. The turf won’t be slick from rain, but how the ball moves on the surface is always an advantage for the Sounders. Add a sellout crowd and Seattle could be looking at a magical redo of 2019 when it defeated Toronto FC for the MLS Cup before a Lumen Field-record 69,274.
Pumas won’t be intimidated. Environments in Liga MX matches are more intense than anything MLS can cultivate. Plus, Los Felinos clawed their way to second leg heroics in each of three previous rounds to get to this position.
Against Costa Rican side Deportivo Saprissa, Dinenno had late-game goals to win the Round of 16 matchup 6-3 in aggregate scoring. A penalty shootout in the second leg against MLS giant New England Revolution advanced Pumas to the semifinals. And an inspiring defensive performance while playing a man down for 27 minutes against rival Cruz Azul in the CCL semis second leg pushed Pumas to their first CONCACAF final since 2005. Their last CONCACAF win was in 1989.
“We have to be careful,” Schmetzer said. “I know Pumas will never quit. But our team won’t quit either, so it should be a good final.”