By John Boyle Herald Writer
SEATTLE — The Seattle Sounders’ regular season doesn’t begin for another 10 days, but it isn’t a stretch to call tonight’s game one of the biggest in franchise history.
The CONCACAF Champions League is a long, long ways from a mainstream event in American sports, and it hasn’t gained even a fraction of the following of the Champions League tournament in Europe. However, to the teams involved, including the Sounders, a chance to be crowned the best team in this part of the world is a very big deal.
“For us it’s very important,” midfielder Osvaldo Alonso said. “We want to win this tournament. For the first time we’re in the quarterfinals, so for us, for the club, it’s a great opportunity for us to show how important this tournament is.”
Seattle is one of eight teams remaining in the tournament which includes teams from North America, Central America and the Caribbean. Tonight the Sounders play host to Santos of Mexico in the first game of a home-and-home quarterfinal series.
The tournament began last year, with Seattle advancing out of group play and into the quarterfinals. The Sounders played in the tournament in 2010 as well, but failed to advance out of the group stage, and after getting this far, Seattle is dreaming big.
“I think it’s the most prestigious cup that any MLS team competes for,” Sounders coach Sigi Schmid said. “The MLS Cup is certainly an important championship — you always want to win your country’s championship — as is the Supporter’s Shield, as is the U.S. Open Cup. But if you can win the championship of your confederation, if you can be the champions of that group, if you can lay claim to the title that says, ‘Hey, we’re the best team from Canada all the way through Panama,’ that’s something that’s pretty special and pretty unique.”
Seattle certainly will have its hands full moving past the quarterfinals. For one, history is against American teams, which have yet to win the tournament in its current format, and has only twice produced a champion since CONCACAF started playing a tournament in 1962: D.C. United in 1998 and the Schmid-coached L.A. Galaxy in 2000.
Making matters more difficult is the fact that Seattle’s opponent, Santos, is nine games into its season while Seattle is just wrapping up its preseason and will be playing its first competitive game tonight. Schmid did change his team’s preseason routine to get players in game-shape earlier, and also has scheduled preseason games on Wednesdays to get players ready for today’s game and next Wednesday’s game in Torreon, Mexico. But no matter what Seattle does to prepare, there is no replacing the experience teams get from playing meaningful games.
“I think we’re about as ready as we can be, short of being able to be eight games into our season,” Schmid said. “We’re a team that always relies on possession and knocking the ball around, so sometimes our type of team takes a little longer to get in a rhythm.”
Rhythm or not, the Sounders believes they can continue their run in this tournament, beginning with today’s game. Seattle will hope the home crowd can help carry them to a win today, giving it a cushion when it heads to Mexico. The winner in this quarterfinal series is decided by aggregate scoring with away goals used as a tiebreaker.
Mexican clubs have dominated this tournament, but Sounders players believe the gap between Major League Soccer and the Mexican Primera Division is closing, which was demonstrated in group play by Seattle’s win at Monterrey and FC Dallas’ win at Club Universidad Nacional. Prior to last year, no American team had won a competitive match in Mexico.
“We feel like we can beat them,” midfielder Mauro Rosales said. “We feel like if everybody concentrates and works for each other, we can be a strong team, playing in Mexico, playing it doesn’t matter where. We’re confident in our quality.”
The Champions League winner advances to the Club World Cup, a competition between club champions from all six continental confederations, and a tournament that was last won by European giant Barcelona.
“One of the goals we set out with early in the club’s existence was to play, compete and succeed internationally, and this is our one chance in true competition,” general manager Adrian Hanauer said. “The way we see it is we’re six games away from playing in the world club championships. We certainly have three very, very difficult opponents in front of that, but this is our chance for our club, and for Major League Soccer in general, to get an opportunity to show well against our regional competition.”
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.