Midweek analysis

Analysis: Sounders prevail in NJ, Chelsea falls in Madrid, Sonora shines in South America

It was a very busy week for Americans in international competitions across the globe. ASN's Brian Sciaretta was at the CONCACAF Champions League semifinal and he starts there with Seattle. But there was also lots to report on in Europe with Pulisic & Chelsea and in South America with the Sonora brothers. 
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
April 14, 2022
6:25 AM

IT IS ALREADY THURSDAY, and the top stories this week have been American players, at teams, in Intercontinental tournaments. In addition to the CONCACAF Champions League, you had or will have American involvement in the UEFA Champions League, the Europa League, the Conference League, the Copa Libertadores, and the Copa Sudamericana.

So that’s a lot of soccer. So, let’s get right into it and break it down


Sounders prevail


The top story came on Wednesday night in Harrison, New Jersey. After defeating NYCFC 3-1 at home last week in the first leg of the semifinal, Seattle travelled across the country to Red Bull Arena for leg two.

This one was far different. NYCFC controlled most of the game needing a multigoal win. With away goals counting, NYCFC had to also try hold that edge in a tiebreaker. The early chances were all in the direction of NYCFC.

Seattle struck first, however, on a goal from Raul Ruidiaz off a cross from Nouhou. It was against the run of play, and that meant NYCFC now needed at least three goals to force a shootout. If Seattle scored again, however, NYCFC would then need to score five.


To its credit, NYCFC did not let up with its attack. Ronny Deila’s squad was ferocious to start the second half. After hitting the post twice, Santiago Rodriguez pulled NYCFC even in this game and within two on aggregate on a goal where a Thiago Andrade centering pass was dummied by Taty Castellanos. That allowed Rodriguez for an open shot from 12 yards past Stefan Frei.

“We knew we were going to get a spirited NYCFC team, a committed, a motivated NYCFC team,” said Seattle manager Brian Schmetzer. “We needed to match their effort, and I think in a lot of portions of the game, we did.”


The big story for the next 25 minutes was Stefan Frei. The veteran Seattle goalkeeper made several huge saves with his best coming in the 73rd minute on Talles Mango.


After that, Seattle regained control of the game and NYCFC soon faded. But it was Frei who kept Seattle in the game at key moments an always ensured it had a multigoal lead.

Here are some thoughts


Frei performance


Stefan Frei’s performance in this game was incredible. In addition to the big save on Talles Mango, he also robbed NYCFC of several other occasions – twice in that span between the 50th and 73rd minutes.


Both managers were quick to point out Frei’s performance.

“We created enough to score at least three goals, but their goalkeeper was unbelievable today,” said NYCFC head coach Ronny Deila.

"He had a monster game," Schmetzer said of Frei. "I thought he kept us in the game."

Frei has had a great career and will turn 36 next week. He became an American citizen at age 31 but it seems entirely plausible that if he had been an American citizen his entire career, he would have had a bunch of caps with the United States national team. He’s been such a stalwart for Seattle. Everyone remembers his big save in the 2016 MLS Cup final vs. Toronto, but last night was also enormous.


Roldan’s defense


Cristian Roldan has had a big tournament so far in the CONCACAF Champions League. In addition to being the Man of the Match in Seattle’s 3-0 win over Leon in the first leg of the quarterfinal, his defense has also been key.

Last night, Roldan won duel after duel and drew a ton of fouls to slow the game down. This game became chippy and confrontational – which only helped Seattle. NYCFC was hoping to throw Seattle off its game, but with NYCFC playing so well, it only neutralized their advantage. Also, Seattle was very good at handling the “CONCACAF” style of play – and Roldan was a key reason.

Looking ahead to the final against Pumas, Roldan is going to need to be just as effective.


NYCFC impresses


It wasn’t enough to advance, but that was the best NYCFC has looked all season. The reigning MLS Cup champs have just one win from five games to start the 2022 season in MLS. The team hasn’t impressed offensively, defensively, or even in possession.

This game last night was a glimpse of why this team won MLS Cup last year. Taty Castellanos is still probably the most dangerous No. 9 in the league. Talles Mango also now looks ready to assume a starting role and show why he is such a highly rated player coming out of Brazil.


Pumas awaits


Seattle will now get ready for the final against Pumas with the first leg coming in two weeks in Mexico City. The return leg will be in Seattle the following week. Seattle has an opportunity to become the first MLS team to win this tournament.

“It’s a trophy that the club certainly covets,” Schmetzer said. “That’s something that we have made public. Garth [Lagerwey] when he came here said it was a goal of ours. The constant theme throughout this club, the culture of the club, is to win every game, every trophy, every competition.”

The closest an MLS team ever came was in 2018 when Toronto lost to Chivas in a shootout in the final. Overall, this Seattle teams is probably stronger than Toronto. Toronto had a bigger “difference maker” in Sebastian Giovinco but it was also overly reliant on the Italian.

Seattle has a veteran midfield, a solid front line, and an excellent goalkeeper. The question will be how it holds up defensively.

“Ultimately, you want to play for trophies,” said Frei. “This franchise has a high standard. Sometimes, that means pressure, but the players enjoy that pressure. We appreciate the fact that we have opportunities to be in pressure moments. We have opportunities for trophies, and for some players in their careers it comes never. We’re excited that we find ourselves in another situation like that. We’re also very, very excited that we get to play the second leg at home. Hopefully with an amazing atmosphere, we can achieve something that nobody’s done before.”

The formula is the same, keep it close in Mexico, return home and hope to take advantage there.

Pumas is not an elite Liga MX team at the moment. Despite getting off to a slow start, a healthy Seattle team is tops in MLS. Then again, Chivas in 2018 wasn’t a top Liga MX team either. Toronto defeated a much better Tigres team in the semifinal but couldn’t get it done in the final against Chivas.

Seattle is going to need all of its players to be on their games. If that happens, they have a shot. But they have to be better than they were at Red Bull Arena on Wednesday.

“The one thing we know is that we cannot play a second half that we played today in Mexico or we’re going to run out of juice very quickly,” said Frei. “Again, I think we put in a lot of effort, but if we’re going to put ourselves under so much pressure in Mexico City it’s going to very, very difficult. So they have a good side and we’re going to look at [what] makes them tick and also look at what we want to exploit or want to target. But it’ll be a good final.”


Chelsea bounced by Real Madrid


After losing the first leg at home 3-1, most figured Chelsea was going to bow out to Real Madrid in the Champions League quarterfinal in the Spanish capital.

It turned out to be true. Chelsea did not advance. But few predicted the way in which it would happen.

Chelsea ended up taking a 3-0 lead in this game in the 79th minute to move ahead 4-3 on aggregate.

Christian Pulisic entered the game in the 83rd minute after Real Madrid equalized on aggregate. Late in regular time, Pulisic had two opportunities which he shot over the goal. Unfortunately for Pulisic, they were the best chances Chelsea had to win the game. In extra time, it was Real Madrid who found the goal.

Pulisic’s opportunities were tricky but not exceptionally difficult. For an attacking player on one of the world’s best teams, expectations are higher that at least one should be finished. Pulisic is a very dangerous player and a very good player, but his finishing is an area where he can be inconsistent. Unfortunately, when you get into an environment such as this – or from a international perspective, Azteca – misses become more pronounced.

Meanwhile in Madrid on Thursday, Manchester City barely advanced past Atletico Madrid after a 0-0 road draw. Zack Steffen, as expected, remained on the bench but he is the last remaining American in the Champions League tournament.


Dest returns


The top end of the U.S. national team player pool is riddled with injuries.

Weston McKennie, Gio Reyna, Matt Turner, and Sergino Dest are all hurt now. Other players like Tim Weah, Zack Steffen, and Chris Richards have only just returned from injury.

While Reyna’s injury stands out, the has been positive news lately. Per Juventus boss Max Allegri, Weston McKennie might return in May.

But the best news is that Sergino Dest is officially back for Barcelona and could feature on Thursday in the Europa League against Eintracht Frankfurt. Dest was hurt for Barcelona just before the March international window with a hamstring injury.


Europa/Conference preview


There are number of Americans involved in European games on Thursday.

In the Europa league quarterfinal second legs, there are two games:

Tyler Adams and RB Leipzig head south to Italy to visit Atalanta with the score even 1-1 on aggregate after the first leg. It what should be a concern for national team fans, Tyler Adams has lost his starting spot. To build for a potential move this summer, he has to take advantage of any opportunity he gets on the field with Leipzig the remainder of the season. This game kicks off at 12:45pm EST.

Barcelona hosts Eintracht Frankfurt at 3:00pm EST at the Nou Camp. Two American right backs are likely going to be on the bench to start this game. Sergino Dest returns from his injury for Barcelona but it is hard to see him getting the starting nod. Timothy Chandler is also likely to be on the bench for Eintracht as he was an unused sub in the first leg. This game is 1-1 after the first leg.

In the Conference League, there might be some Americans in action although unlikely.

PSV Eindhoven hosts Leicester City at 12:45pm EST with the game 0-0 after the first leg in England. Richard Ledezma should be on the bench for PSV and minutes have been few and far between since his return from ACL surgery in December.

Slavia Prague host Feyenoord at 3:00pm EST with the aggregate score at 3-3 after the first leg in Holland. Cole Bassett could be on the bench for Feyenoord. Thus far he has only been limited to late-game cameos since his 18-month loan from Colorado started in January.

Konrad de la Fuente is injured after knee surgery and won’t play for Marseille again this season. Marseille visit PAOK FC on Thursday in Greece after winning the first leg 2-1 at home.


Americans in South America


There were several American players involved in the two South American intercontinental tournaments this week.

In the Copa Sudamericana, Alan Sonora, 23, came off the bench for Independiente to start the second half against Paraguay’s Club General Caballero. The score was 0-0 when he entered and in the 73rd minute he scored a special goalazo.

A lot of American fans want to know if Alan Sonora has a chance with the national team. Things were looking very positive for him in 2021 and he was in contact with Gregg Berhalter. The start of 2022 hasn’t been great for him as he (along with several other players on Independiente) has been struggling after the departure of Alan Velasco to FC Dallas. Velasco was a marquee player for them and Dallas (coincidentally the club that swooped up and bought Sonora’s father in 1997 from Boca Juniors) spend a lot of its Ricardo Pepi money on Velasco.

There was an adjustment period for Sonora without Velasco but this was as strong as he has looked in 2022. That might get him in the picture for June – it certainly wouldn’t surprise me. From there, it will be up to him to take advantage.

Alan’s older brother, Joel Sonora, was in action last week for Velez Sarsfield in the more prestigious Copa Libertadores. Sonora, a member of the U.S. U-20 World Cup team in 2015, played the final 28 minutes in a 4-1 loss. Then over the weekend, he started and played 72 minutes in Velez Sarsfield’s 0-0 draw at home to Boca Juniors. At 25, the elder Sonora seems far from the national team.

In the Copa Sudamericana on Thursday, California-born & raised winger Michael Hoyos played the second half for LDU Quito in a 4-0 win over Chile's Deportivo Antofagasta. The good news for Hoyos, is that the score was 0-0 when he came into the game.

Over the last weekend, Hoyos scored for LDU Quito in a 2-0 away win over Cumbaya in the Ecuadorian Primera. Hoyos has been a top winger in Ecuador for years. It seems as if has been a lost opportunity for a team in MLS to not have made an effort to acquire him.

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