Sean Johnson shifted in his seat. Sometimes it can be difficult to give an opponent a compliment, even when one — Sounders FC midfielder Cristian Roldan — is a close friend and U.S. national team teammate.
“They have quality all over the pitch,” said Johnson, the New York City FC goalkeeper, of the Sounders. “They built their roster well.”
That roster will be tested Wednesday at Lumen Field as the Sounders are expected to feature their healthiest attacking lineup when the MLS clubs play each other under the banner of the CONCACAF Champions League.
The two-legged semifinal series is a first for New York City. Whichever team advances will become the fifth MLS club to reach the CCL finals, none having won the regional tournament. The winner will play a two-legged series against Liga MX clubs Cruz Azul and Pumas UNAM.
“There’s quality all over the league, really,” Johnson continued.
That last bit is a nod to NYCFC. While the lead-up to the semifinal opener is about Sounders striker Raul Ruidiaz and savvy midfielder Nico Lodeiro not being medically restricted for the first time this season, Wednesday’s matchup is between two of the league’s past three MLS Cup champs.
In the shadow of Seattle winning their 2019 title and never missing the MLS playoffs, NYCFC has made moves to shape a roster that would win their club’s first MLS Cup in 2021. The Cityzens defeated the Portland Timbers in a penalty shootout at Providence Park in December — Johnson saving two shots from the spot to help ensure the win.
NYCFC lacks experience on the international stage but could be viewed as a mirror image to the Sounders. Johnson is 12-year MLS veteran in goal. Up top is forward Taty Castellanos, who bested Ruidiaz for the league’s Golden Boot last season with 19 goals. In the midfield is veteran Maxi Moralez, however he may not be available due to injury.
The Cityzens even enjoy playing on artificial turf.
“It’s a good thing for us,” said NYCFC coach Ronny Delia, who was hired in January 2020. “But it’s important to know their strength is to play at home. … We must enjoy the moment, enjoy that we are here.
“There’s a lot of teams sitting at home not here. We are here because we have been good. We have to understand that we get the best performance when we attack the moment and see what we get instead of thinking too much.”
The Sounders haven’t played New York City since July 2019 due to the coronavirus pandemic and the league regionalizing games until this season. Seattle didn’t field their first-choice roster for the 3-0 midweek loss at Yankee Stadium, defenders Nouhou, Xavier Arreaga, Alex Roldan and keeper Stefan Frei being the only holdovers from the 2019 game.
Nouhou is unavailable for selection Wednesday due to yellow card accumulation in CONCACAF matches. Sounders defender Yeimar Gomez Andrade could also be out due to a high ankle sprain. The Colombian was spotted running at training Tuesday.
Castellanos, 23, was an unproven talent in 2019. Now he’s highly touted, bagging four goals and three assists in CCL play. But the Argentine has been stifled against MLS opponents this season.
NYCFC enters Wednesday game after losing to Toronto and Philadelphia in their past two outings. The Cityzens have been in Seattle since Sunday to prepare for the match.
“I don’t buy into the fact that NYC is struggling to score goals,” said Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer of the Cityzens totaling five strikes in league play. “They’ve got too many talented players. It’s going to be a challenge, for sure. But we’re confident that we’ve prepared well.”
Seattle advanced to the CCL semifinals by defeating Liga MX side Club Leon 4-1 in aggregate scoring. The Sounders want to replicate the quarterfinal series by holding NYCFC goalless at home because away goals are the first tiebreaker.
Leon hosted the second leg and needed to score five goals in order to advance.
New York City is well-versed on the importance of away goals. They advanced to the semis by defeating Guatemalan side Comunicaciones F.C. 5-5 in aggregate, the two scores in a 4-2 loss in Guatemala being the tiebreakers.
“We must be smart and play with full concentration, especially at home,” said Lodeiro, whose team has conceded goals in the final 20 minutes of their past three games, including second-half stoppage time against Leon. “We must play like it’s a final.”
It’s been a decade since Seattle’s only other CCL semifinal appearance in 2013 when the Sounders lost to Liga MX’s Santos Laguna. The Sounders haven’t won any international tournaments. The closest was the 3-2 loss against Leon in Leagues Cup last season.
Seattle’s roster depth has the team feeling like this could be the year it reaches that benchmark. The Rave Green also have momentum after a 2-1 win against Minnesota United at Allianz Field last weekend. Schmetzer regarded the opening half as one of the team’s best performances.
But New York City has quality, too.
“We don’t feel like we need to prove ourselves,” Cityzens midfielder Santiago Rodriguez said as translated from Spanish. “It’s going to be a great game and we’re really excited. We both like to attack, so we’re really looking forward to this matchup.”