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Sounders prepare to host Laguna

The Sounders have tried to replicate regular-season conditions for tonight’s CONCACAF Champions League match. (Associated Press)
The Sounders have tried to replicate regular-season conditions for tonight’s CONCACAF Champions League match. (Associated Press)

SEATTLE – Before their fourth Major League Soccer season even kicks off, the Seattle Sounders might play the most important match in the franchise’s young history.

While the CONCACAF Champions League doesn’t create the same interest as its counterpart in Europe, the Sounders understand just how vital success in the competition is to raising the MLS’ international profile.

“This is huge. This is what people are turning on their TV on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons to watch the Champions League from Europe, and this is the same thing. This is from our area, our confederation,” Seattle coach Sigi Schmid said.

Seattle’s opportunity for raising that profile begins tonight when the Sounders host Santos Laguna in the first leg of the home-and-home quarterfinal.

If Seattle can advance to the semis, it would guarantee an MLS team would play in the finals of the event for the second straight year and provide another chance to be the first MLS team to reach the FIFA Club World Cup. The quarterfinal that the Seattle-Santos winner feeds into features Los Angeles against Toronto.

Last year, Real Salt Lake reached the finals against Monterrey before losing 3-2 on aggregate.

“This is a huge series. If we can get by this series, then this series winner plays the winner of L.A. and Toronto, and then you’re only one step away from the championship,” Schmid said. “It’s a really vital, crucial series.”

Because Seattle’s league season hasn’t started, the Sounders have done their best to replicate regular-season conditions. They arranged preseason matches against Mexican sides Atlante and Chiapas, although the match in Cancun against Atlante turned out to be more of a headache. Seattle played on consecutive Wednesdays, the same schedule as the two-leg matchup against Santos, and perhaps holds a slight advantage with Santos having Primera Division matches surrounding the series against the Sounders.

But Santos is nine games into its league season and currently sits third, three points behind first-place Morelia. And unlike getting ready to face an MLS team, Mexican clubs have their own styles that Seattle defenseman Jeff Parke said can be difficult to prepare for.

“You can’t say, ‘Hey, this guy is going to be here, he is going to be playing up top, he’s going to be playing out wide.’ They’re always interchanging and moving and crossing and taking runs in behind you,” Parke said. “It’s something you definitely have to have your head on a swivel and be ready for any style. If they start getting knocked around a little bit and it’s not working for them, they’ll just change it up.”

Santos and Seattle don’t have any on-field history as foes, but some of the participants do. One of those is Santos forward Herculez Gomez, who played for Schmid when he coached in Los Angeles. The two had a falling out following a contract dispute after the 2002 season. In an interview with last week, Gomez said Schmid has proven to be a great coach “but I wasn’t his cup of tea and he made that known.”

No matter the outcome tonight, Seattle does know it can win in Mexico. Last year in the group stage, the Sounders became the second MLS franchise to beat a Mexican club on its home soil when the Sounders defeated Monterrey 1-0 in August. Even with that background, they don’t want to head south facing a major deficit.

“It’s not something you can put into thought and say ‘we’ll get them later on’ or ‘we’ll get them two months from now,’ ” Parke said. “It’s bam, we play them, and bam, we play them again. You have to be on top of your game.”