When asked about what he had learned about San Francisco, Sounders FC head coach Sigi Schmid smiled.
“It’s a nice city,” he laughed. “Cable cars …”
Schmid was joking when he talked about the Sounders FC’s opponent in the preliminary round of the CONCACAF Champions League, but in reality, it’s not easy to gather information about clubs from the far reaches of Central America and the Caribbean. In the case of Panama’s San Francisco FC, that process is made more difficult by the calendar of the Panamanian Football League.
While the Sounders have played 22 matches in their 2011 MLS schedule, San Francisco is just two matches into the Apertura portion of the 2011-2012 season.
“Obviously we’re gathering our information. We didn’t want to lose our focus and gather information early, but we’ve got some tapes, we’ve got some highlights of them, we have their roster and we know what they’re about,” Schmid said on Saturday before the Sounders left for Panama on Sunday. “Since they haven’t played a lot of league games there’s not a lot that we’re going to be able to base what their new teams looks like, so we’re going to have to adjust quickly in the game.”
Schmid can base much of the tactical strategies of what to expect on his knowledge of head coach Gary Stempel. The former boss for the Panama national team is in his second stint with San Francisco and has typically employed a 4-4-2.\
Among the players on their roster, San Francisco has two midfielders – Gabriel Torres and Eybir Bonaga – who played for Panama in the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup in June. Both appeared in two matches, including a 3-2 win over the US in the group stage. Bonaga got the start in the final game of the group stage as well, playing 79 minutes in a 1-1 draw with Canada.
In addition, five other players have been called in to the national team for matches since 2010. Goalkeeper Erick Hughes, defender Rolando Algandona, midfielders Eduardo Jimenez Blis and Amir White and forward Roberto Brown all got the call while all but Hughes saw action in that time.
This season, forward Johan De Avila has both goals for San Francisco has started the season with a pair of 1-0 wins for a 2-0-0 record.
For their part, the Sounders FC is looking much more to their own experiences in the Champions League last year to gain perspective on how to approach the match.
After getting past Metapan of El Salvador in the preliminary round 2-1 on aggregate, Seattle struggled to get results in the group stage, going just 1-5-0 in a tough group with tournament semifinalists Saprissa of Costa Rica and eventual champion Monterrey of Mexico, along with Marathon of Honduras.
“We were so close at different times. We played much better than the results that we got. You just have to realize that you have to have that little bit more cutting edge,” goalkeeper and captain Kasey Keller said. “You have to take advantage of your chances to score and you have to understand that they are going to find ways to score as well if you give them opportunities. You just have to limit your mistakes and limit the chances you give them. It’s pretty simple stuff, but I thought we didn’t quite do that as well as we could have in the last go-round.”
This year, they will have home-field advantage in the preliminary round, playing first in Panama City against San Francisco before the return leg August 3 at CenturyLink Field in Seattle. This will allow Seattle a bit more leverage in the road leg of the aggregate goal series and will let them know what kind of result they need when they return home.
However, they know not to use the home-field edge as a crutch.
“It’s a huge advantage, but it’s only an advantage if you go down to the first one and do a job there,” Keller said. “If you get a draw, you know what you have to do when you come back to your place. You go down you lose 1-0 or you lose 4-0 it’s a different ballgame. If you make sure you do it right down there, it gives you a good idea of what you need to accomplish.”
Because of that, defender James Riley said that he expects the Sounders to play a bit more conservative in the road leg than Seattle is accustomed to playing.
“We want to keep it as tight as possible and anything can happen when we come back to CenturyLink. We’ll be mindful and have a more defensive shape,” said Riley, noting that they fell victim to the counter-attack too often in a 7-0 defeat to Manchester United in a friendly last Wednesday. “It’s a home-and-away, so you don’t want to go out all guns-a-blazing in the first and be susceptible to counter-attacks. If we ever needed a demo on how to counter-attack, we got seven goals worth of it to dissect.”
Kickoff for the first leg of the series is slated for 5 pm Pacific Time, with television coverage on Fox Soccer. We will be live-blogging the match as well, on SoundersFC.com.