By John Boyle Herald Writer
SEATTLE — The Seattle Sounders, who are off to their worst start in franchise history, were better Tuesday night as they shifted gears to CONCACAF Champions League play.
Better, however, was not good enough against Santos Laguna, which left CenturyLink Field with a 1-0 victory in the opening leg of the Champions League semifinal series that will conclude in Torreon, Mexico on Tuesday.
After playing one of their worst halves in recent memory in Saturday’s 2-1 loss to Real Salt Lake, the Sounders were hoping to bounce back with a win that would give them momentum going into a tough environment next week. Despite a better effort, they ended up the victim of a Herculez Gomez goal that will make advancing to the finals a very tough task, considering how dominant Santos Laguna has been at home in this tournament.
“Obviously you don’t want to lose your home game,” Sounders coach Sigi Schmid said. “I thought we didn’t play that poorly, I thought we did all right. They’re a very good team. Their front three is as dangerous a front three as you’re going to run into anywhere. They got in a few times, but I thought for the most part we held them at bay, which was good.”
“We now have to go down there and play pretty much a perfect game. That’s not impossible; it’s difficult, but it’s not impossible.”
Just how difficult? Well, if you’ll recall last year’s Champions League quarterfinal against Santos, Seattle won at home 2-1, and was tied on aggregate 3-3 at halftime in Torreon. Then Santos scored four times in the second half to advance easily. In the semifinal, Santos Laguna outscored Toronto FC 6-2 at home, and in this year’s quarterfinal victory over Houston, Santos won 3-0 at home. That adds up to a 15-3 advantage at home against MLS teams during the past two years in the knockout stages of the tournament.
But daunting task ahead of them or not, the Sounders at least came out of Tuesday’s loss knowing they took a small step forward, even if it didn’t produce the desired result.
“We worked,” Schmid said. “I think we worked for each other. We didn’t pick and choose. That’s the important part of the game — you’ve got to work all the time. It’s when the game requires you to work, not when you want to work. We’ve still got to get better in the final third; there’s still a lack of movement when we’re getting into crossing positions and dangerous positions. So, that’s something we still have to work on.”
Seattle controlled the play for most of the first half as Santos Laguna played early like a team content to settle for a tie and take its chances at home next week, but after an Osvaldo Alonso shot was saved in the 54th minute, Santos struck with a quick counter attack. Marcus Hahnemann was able to save the initial shot by forward Carlos Quintero, but the rebound fell to Gomez, who buried a shot into the side netting.
Gomez, who played for Sigi Schmid with the L.A. Galaxy and who briefly played for the A-League version of the Sounders in 2003, has not been kind to his former coach or city in this tournament. In last year’s quarterfinal, Gomez was responsible for three of Santos Laguna’s seven goals in the series victory.
“He seems to do well every time he comes here,” said defender Zach Scott, who played with Gomez on that ‘03 Sounders squad.
Gomez, now a regular on the U.S. national team, said his summer in Seattle was, “probably one of the best summers I ever had,” and he enjoyed a chance to return home, even if that meant hearing fans chant “Sounders reject” when he missed a shot in the first half.
“I love it,” he said of the jeers. “Being called a Sounders’ reject, any kind of reject, it digs deep, it fuels the fire. I didn’t have the easiest go at the beginning of my career, so any chance I can get to redeem myself is a good chance.”
Tuesday’s game marked the Sounders’ debut of midfielder Shalrie Joseph, who was acquired in a preseason trade but has been battling back from a calf injury. He was one of several new starters as Schmid made a number of changes, some by choice, some because he had to.
Hahnemann was in for Michael Gspurning, who was suspended for the game because of a pair of yellow cards he picked up earlier in the competition, while Sammy Ochoa was the only forward available because of injuries to Eddie Johnson (toe, hamstring), Obafemi Martins (knee) and David Estrada (eye). Schmid said he hopes to have Martins and Johnson back for Tuesday’s game, though Estrada could be out longer.
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.