By John Boyle Herald Writer
TUKWILA — It’s a strange place the Seattle Sounders find themselves in at the start of April.
On one hand they are one of four teams still standing in CONCACAF Champions League play, a tournament that crowns the top team in North America, Central America and the Caribbean. To get to that point, Seattle had to knock of Tigres UANL in the quarterfinals, becoming the first MLS team to beat a Mexican club in the knockout stages of this tournament. This is also the first time the Sounders have advanced this far in Champions League play.
But the Sounders are also 0-3-1 in league play, which has them at the bottom of the MLS Western Conference standings, leaving fans wondering what the heck is wrong with a team that came into the season with championship ambitions.
As odd as the start to this season has been for Seattle, tonight’s game against Santos Laguna at CenturyLink Field, the opening game of a two-leg semifinal that will conclude in Torreon, Mexico, next week, couldn’t come at a better time for a team struggling mightily to right the ship in league play.
“It’s just a chance to kind of forget the 0-3-1 and play this game for what it is,” said midfielder Steve Zakuani. “It doesn’t have any bearing on the league. It’s a brand new competition against a very good team.
“We’re happy it’s April now, and we hopefully can say March was the worst month of the season.”
And while, as Zakuani points out, tonight’s game won’t change where Seattle stands in league play, it could help jumpstart a turnaround. Back in 2010, the Sounders were in the midst of one of the worst stretches in team history when they lost five of six, but during that time, they also won two U.S. Open Cup games to advance to the semifinals of that tournament. Seattle’s Open Cup quarterfinal win over the L.A. Galaxy that summer came just days after a loss to L.A. in league play, and from that point on Seattle finished the season with a 10-2-3 record.
“It helps definitely,” Sounders coach Sigi Schmid said. “A couple of years ago we were going through a little bit of a struggle and the Open Cup really helped us. We caught some good games in there and we moved forward from that. So being in another competition is something that maybe takes your mind off of it.”
Just who is available tonight remains to be seen. Seattle used its starters in Saturday’s loss to Real Salt Lake, but Schmid has said a number of times recently that players should be able to go two games in one week, especially early in the season. Saturday’s lackluster first half could also lead to lineup changes regardless of who is available, though when asked about his lineup, Schmid would only say, “You’ll see tomorrow whether we change things or not.”
At least one change is coming for certain, however, because goalkeeper Michael Gspurning is suspended for tonight’s game thanks to the two yellow cards he picked up earlier in the competition. That will mean a rare start for veteran backup Marcus Hahnemann, who signed with Seattle last year but has seen little first-team action. Hahnemann, 40, may not have much game experience with the Sounders, but that isn’t a concern for Schmid considering Hahnemann’s past experience playing professionally in England and with the U.S. national team.
“He knows what big occasions are, he knows the importance of them,” Schmid said. “He’s a quality goalkeeper, and that’s why we signed him last year when that opportunity presented itself, so that if we were faced with this kind of a situation, we had a goalkeeper we felt good about, and we feel very confident in Marcus.”
Hahnemann and the defense know a shutout would be big tonight because away goals are the first tiebreaker in Champions League play.
In the past two years of this tournament, Santos Laguna has shown an ability to dominate at home following subpar performances on the road against MLS teams, something Seattle knows all too well.
In last year’s quarterfinals, the Sounders won at home 2-1 and felt pretty good heading to Torreon, but Santos won 6-1 at home to advance with ease. In the semifinals, Santos Laguna and Toronto FC played to a tie in the first leg, then Santos won 6-2 at home in the second leg. And against Houston in this year’s quarterfinals, Santos lost 1-0 in the first leg, then won 3-0 at home to advance.
Despite those results, the Sounders can’t get too carried away with trying to pile up goals, Schmid said, because that can lead to defensive lapses.
“We need to get a good result at home,” Schmid said, “But we’re not going out there and saying, ‘Well (shoot), they’ve banged away a lot of goals on everybody at their place, so we’d better get four or something.’ You can’t do that, because you don’t want to leave yourself open.”
Herald Writer John Boyle: email@example.com.