The Seattle Sounders would love to bounce back from a season opening loss by winning in Mexico tonight, but truth be told, the opening leg of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal is more about not digging too big of hole than it is claiming a victory.
The Sounders, who play Tigres UANL tonight in Monterrey, have done a lot of things well in the franchise’s young history, but for the most part playing well on the road in a home-and-away, aggregate-goal format has not been one of them.
At this time last year, during their first trip to the Champions League quarterfinals, the Sounders found themselves in good shape when they beat Santos Laguna 2-1 at home, but a week later, Seattle lost in Mexico 6-1. Add to that the fact that Seattle’s playoff series against the L.A Galaxy began with a 3-0 road loss last season, as did the Sounders’ series against Real Salt Lake a year earlier, and avoiding a road disaster becomes a more important than starting off with a victory.
“It will definitely be strongly impressed upon them in the next few days,” Sounders coach Sigi Schmid said on a conference call Monday. “It’s like if somebody throws you in a pool and you can’t swim. You either figure out that you want to swim or you never go in the pool again.
“For us, we’ve had some bad results in the first leg of two-legged series, so we have to turn that around or just not make the playoffs anymore and get into those series. I think the team would rather take the first approach of learning how to deal with this.”
Even in ideal circumstances, MLS teams are at a disadvantage at this stage of Champions League play. Mexican clubs, which have significantly higher payrolls, also have the advantage of being in midseason form, while MLS is just getting going.
This year, as Sounders general manager Adrian Hanauer has admitted, is anything but an ideal setup for Seattle. Two players Seattle hopes will be major contributors — midfielder Shalrie Joseph and defender Djimi Traore — were very late offseason additions, and while Traore may be able to play tonight, Joseph is still a ways out from being game-fit. A third big signing that the Sounders hope will be a game-changer, that of forward Obafemi Martins, still has not been finalized.
“We’re confident in our abilities,” Hanauer said. “We want to win CONCACAF Champions League, but again, I would think it’d be disingenuous to say (injuries and late roster building) don’t affect our abilities. But we’ve got a deep, quality squad and it’s clearly going to be a massive task given the strength of the Tigres team and just the realities of the differences between Liga MX and MLS. Those guys are spending three, four, five times as much on salaries as MLS teams, and it makes it tough to compete.”
None of that means Seattle is just going to concede this quarterfinal before it even starts, even against the team with the best record in Liga MX. However, escaping Monterrey with a tie or even a one-goal loss wouldn’t be too bad of a result leading up to next week’s home leg of the series.
“We’ve got to go out (tonight) with the maturity to play a good game defensively and not get caught up in the enthusiasm of the game — no matter what turn it takes — and not lose by more than we should if we end up losing,” Schmid said. “We obviously want to win the game. If we can’t win it, we want to tie it. If we can’t tie it, we only want to lose one-nothing.”
Winning in Mexico isn’t impossible. The Sounders showed that when they won at Monterrey in 2011 in the group stages of Champions League play. And they will have one of their best players, midfielder Osvaldo Alonso, playing on fresh legs, having missed the season opener because of a one-game suspension. Tigres will be without leading scorer Emanuel Villa sidelined with an injury.
Even if things don’t go the Sounders’ way tonight, Schmid and his players hope that they learned a lesson when they let things get out of hand in their playoff series against the Galaxy last season. Had the Sounders stopped the bleeding after one goal in that game, the would have had a very good chance of advancing to the MLS Cup final the way they played at home with their backs against the wall.
As forward Eddie Johnson pointed out, and as that desperate playoff effort against L.A. showed, the Sounders can be pretty darn good “when we’re all on the same page, and we all believe we can do it.
“But we need to not wait until our back’s against the wall,” Johnson added. “That’s one of the challenges this year, not waiting to dig ourselves a hole to respond.”
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.