From the first day that Seattle was awarded a Major League Soccer franchise, Adrian Hanauer and the rest of the ownership group sought to compete on a global scale.
Next Wednesday when they meet Santos Laguna in the first leg of their CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal series, it will be a huge step in reaching that goal.
And it’s no small step.
In the three previous editions of the Champions League since the tournament took on the current format, only four MLS teams have reached the quarterfinals. Of those, only Real Salt Lake has advanced past that round, reaching the final in the 2010-2011 tournament before falling to Monterrey in the final.
All told, since the tournament took on a knockout format in 2002, only six teams from outside of Mexico have reached the final and only twice in that time has a non-Mexican team won.
“One of the goals we set out with early in the club’s existence was to play, compete and succeed internationally,” Hanauer said. “This is our one chance in true competition.”
The magnitude of the series, which starts Wednesday and continues March 14 in Torreon, Mexico, cannot be understated.
In just their third season, the Sounders FC was able to advance out of the group stage of the tournament, highlighted by a 1-0 win against defending champions Monterrey in Mexico.
“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,” Sounders FC head coach Sigi Schmid said. “This is from our area, our confederation.”
In Santos Laguna, Seattle draws one of the top teams in Mexico. In the 2011 Apertura, they finished fourth before reaching the tournament final. After a hot start, they have cooled in the 2012 Clausura, posting a 4-2-2 record that places them sixth in the current season.
With one more match on Saturday against San Luis, Santos Laguna will be nine matches into their season when they meet Seattle on Wednesday. While their opponents are in midseason form, Schmid is confident the Sounders are prepared for an important match.
“I think we’re about as ready as we can be, short of being able to be eight games into our season,” he said. “We’re a team that is a team that always relies on possession and knocking the ball around, so sometimes our type of team takes a little longer to get in a rhythm.”
With still a long MLS season on the horizon, the Sounders have built their preseason around this matchup with Santos Laguna. Schmid and the Seattle coaching staff has been diligently preparing the players for the biggest game the club has seen, treating the preseason not as a slow buildup but as a crash course – ramping up the team’s fitness and getting them in a weekly rhythm that saw them play against tough competition on each of the last three Wednesdays.
That started with a match against the Columbus Crew in Bradenton, Florida. There, the group that Schmid anticipates will start against Santos Laguna played about 75 minutes, with Seattle leading 1-0 when they left the field in a match the Sounders would win 2-0.
The following week, the Sounders faced Atlante in Cancun, Mexico, where the club changed the time and location of the match just hours before kickoff. But Seattle was still able to post a 5-2 victory, with the most of the starting group playing about 85 minutes.
Then this week, the Sounders hosted Jaguares de Chiapas at CenturyLink Field, drawing 11,140 fans to a 2-0 win. Schmid used only three subs in the exhibition, simulating next week’s meeting as closely as possible against a club that closely resembles the playing style of Santos Laguna, finishing with a 2-0 victory to close out the preseason.
“We wanted to put ourselves in the best situation from the standpoint of our rhythm of training and our rhythm of play by scheduling our hard games on the Wednesdays leading up into it. We got into that weekly rhythm of always having a hard game on Wednesdays,” Schmid said. “You can’t ever replicate a real match competition where points are at stake and jobs are won or lost, or that sort of a thing. So short of replicating that, we had to make the best situation that we could create.”
The aim of the club was to have the team as well-prepared for the opening game of the series as they would be for a late-summer regular season match.
However, this one is of a greater importance than any match they have played to this point with the team sitting three two-game series from reaching the Club World Championship in Japan.
“The way we see it, we’re six games away from playing in the Club World Championship,” Hanauer said. “We certainly have three very, very difficult opponents in front of that, but this is our chance for our club and for Major League Soccer in general to show well against our regional competition.”
The series kicks off Wednesday at CenturyLink Field. Tickets are available at SoundersFC.com.