In their first season in MLS, the Sounders FC qualified for the CONCACAF Champions League. The tournament pit the Sounders against clubs that had been around playing at a high level in their Central American leagues for years.
At their best, Seattle played even with or better than those teams. However, each match had a moment where the club’s inexperience showed and they were only able to win one of their six matches in the Group Stage.
“There’s only four MLS teams in this tournament, if I’m not mistaken, and only three teams from America. It’s an honor to be in that exclusive group for our franchise, especially as a second year franchise,” head coach Sigi Schmid said.
To reach the Group Stage, the Sounders bested Metapan from El Salvador 2-1 over a two-game aggregate goal series, giving them the only taste of victory they would have until they were already eliminated from contention to advance into the quarterfinals.
However, throughout the course of the eight matches they played over a nearly three month span, the players and coaches learned a lot about how to play in tournaments where everything from the styles of play to the food at the pre-game meal can differ as greatly as the currency as the club ventured from country to country.
“It’s definitely special for our entire organization to represent our country, the city of Seattle and our entire community in a bigger arena,” defender Taylor Graham said. “Flying down and playing in hostile environments - that is tough. It’s difficult to get results. Good teams, teams with character, find ways to get results in these tough places and I think you’re going to see us do that better in the future.”
Those experiences included playing in a packed Estadio Tecnologico in Monterrey, Mexico, where the players were warned of possible kidnappings, to Estadio Cuscatlan in San Salvador, El Salvador, where fans traveled nearly three hours from Metapan’s home city to support the club.
All the while Schmid shuffled his lineups to juggle a schedule that included a deep run to the US Open Cup championship, friendly matches and a hectic league schedule that did not offer any reprieve from the extra games being added.
Over the course of the eight games, Schmid has been able to distribute minutes throughout his roster too. The players in Schmid’s current starting lineup of field players played just 40 percent of the minutes in Champions League, giving plenty of playing time to reserves who have come on as late-game substitutions and replacements for injured and suspended players and have figured prominently in the Sounder success.
That playing time has allowed the likes of Zach Scott and Tyson Wahl to step in quite admirably when Seattle needed them on defense. Equally important was the continual use of Alvaro Fernandez in the matches, keeping the Uruguayan midfielder on the ready for when his chance arises. After bursting on the scene with a goal in his first Sounders FC appearance in a 1-1 draw with Metapan, Fernandez scored again in his first MLS match five days later. His Champions League appearances kept him sharp and he added his second league goal in the playoff-clinching win at Kansas City October 9.
This weekend the Champions League strike force of Jaqua and Mike Fucito will have another chance to shine in MLS play. Fredy Montero will miss the match against Houston because of yellow card accumulation and one of the duo will likely start in his place alongside Blaise Nkufo. Fucito had three goals in the tournament while Jaqua added another on Tuesday night.
“It’s been a great experience for all of us. Different players have had a chance to play in CONCACAF and we’ve traveled to all these different places and played against different teams from different leagues with different styles of play. It’s been a great learning experience,” Roger Levesque said. “The results didn’t really go our way this year, but now we’ve experienced it and we’re looking forward to the challenge again next year.”
That’s been the light at the end of the tunnel for Seattle. By virtue of their win in the US Open Cup, they became the first club to qualify for the 2011 CONCACAF Champions League, giving them the opportunity to carry over some of those lessons into the following CCL campaign.
Additionally, the Sounders were able to use the experiences gained from this year’s tournament to improve their play in the MLS season, where Schmid pointed to their ability to hold the ball and stay in possession even through duress from their opponents as a key element that has helped propel them to the hottest form in Major League Soccer.
“You learn every time you play,” Schmid said. “Guys learned something about themselves. All those experiences are going to make you better as you move forward. To be in this tournament and play the amount of games we’ve played this year will only make us better next year.”
All of the silver lining aside, the Sounders locker room was a frustrated quarters on Tuesday night when they were unable to finish off a final victory.
“Losing is what motivates me. Winning keeps me going. I think losing motivates them as well,” Schmid said. “It reminds them that we have to keep focused, keep our attention to where it needs to be and keep following ourselves up in the same direction as a team. This team is a proud team. They don’t like losing.”
With the MLS Cup Playoffs beginning next weekend, the Sounders are hoping to win the MLS Cup and forgo the Preliminary Round that they had to play in this year and would play next year with their US Open Cup win.
“We were a little inexperienced in this tournament in how we played and how we prepared,” Jaqua said. “I think it’s something that we’ll definitely do a better job of next year.”
The Preliminary Round will likely start in late July with the Group Stage beginning in mid-August.