TUKWILA, Wash. – I think we can agree that the average American understands a soccer schedule about as well as a grade-schooler does a calculus theorem.
There’s the regular season. There are open cups. There are random, in-season tournaments, and well, unless you were raised overseas, you probably aren’t keeping up.
That’s why the significance of what the Sounders are trying to accomplish now – more than seven months before the MLS Cup final – isn’t registering with everyday fans around here. But if they can somehow win the CONCACAF Champions League title, it could be the club’s most impressive accomplishment to date.
“It’s a big one. It’s a huge opportunity,” said Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei, who was a part of both of Seattle’s MLS Cup wins. “It’s one where you’re going into the history books of more than just a team, you’re going in the history books of this league and this country.”
The CONCACAF Champions League pits the top 16 club teams from North America and Central America against each other in a knockout tourney, in which each team gets a home and away game per round. The Sounders played CD Olimpia to a 2-2 draw in Honduras last Thursday and will host it at CenturyLink Field on Thursday night.
Seattle coach Brian Schmetzer said he plans to put his best team on the field for that game as opposed to saving players for Sunday’s MLS opener against the Chicago Fire.
And this is where some folks might get lost.
Should the Sounders beat Olimpia, their next two Champions League games wouldn’t take place until March 10 and March 17. And if they win that leg, they wouldn’t play another Champions League game until April. During that span, they’ll play a multitude of MLS matches, which could be crucial in making and/or securing home-field advantage in the postseason.
It’s a fine balance, as the Sounders want to avoid the pitfalls of 2018, when they put maximum effort into the Champions League yet found themselves near the bottom of the MLS standings at the season’s midway point. A historic second half launched them back into the playoffs, but it was still an educational experience.
At the same time – why not go for this? Since the CONCACAF Champions League expanded its format in 2008, no MLS team has won the tournament. The Sounders have already captured two of the past four MLS Cups. That’s not to say they should risk torpedoing their season for a shot at winning this event, but as Frei said, it would be an achievement that no other MLS team can lay claim to.
For the Sounders, a Champions League title would distinguish themselves from clubs such as the L.A. Galaxy and D.C. United, winners of five and four MLS Cups, respectively. And it would add prestige to MLS, which, while growing, is always in search of greater visibility.
On Monday, Sounders forward Jordan Morris was asked about the significance of the Champions League.
“It’s important. No MLS team has won it. I think this year we have some good opportunities, and this is the start of our road,” Morris said. “I feel we have a quality team that could go far in this tournament. We gotta get through this game to take the next step. Obviously, we’d love to get all the support we can get.”
A win Thursday would pit Seattle against either the Montreal Impact or Deportivo Saprissa of Costa Rica. Regardless of the opponent, it’s considered a relatively easy road to the semifinals.
Relatively is the operative word, as just about any squad in the tournament is capable of an upset win, but Seattle is in prime position.
With spring training in full swing, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament looming and NFL free agency coming up, the Sounders aren’t on many locals’ minds. But it’s worth noting that they’re in the midst of something significant – and potentially historic.
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