The Sounders FC is looking to prove that they belong among the best clubs in North America. That conquest resumes Wednesday night when they face one of the best teams in Mexico – Santos Laguna – in the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League.
In Santos, the Sounders face one of the top teams in North America over the last four years, but they feel like they are ready for the challenge in what has been called the biggest game in club history.
“It’s important for everybody. We are ready for that game. We’ve been working very hard the last month and we’ve been waiting for that game,” midfielder Mauro Rosales said. “We feel like we can beat them. If we work for each other, we can be a very strong team – whether that’s playing in Mexico or it doesn’t matter where.”
The home-and-away, aggregate-goal series will begin with the first leg Wednesday night at CenturyLink Field and finish March 14 in Torreon, Mexico, in the second leg. If the teams are tied after 180 minutes, the first tie-breaker will be away goals. If both teams scored the same total on the road, they will play a 30 minute overtime period. If still tied, they will go to a shootout to determine the winner.
The winner will move on to face the winner of the series between the LA Galaxy and Toronto FC in the semifinals, with the first leg played March 27-29 and the second leg April 3-5. The final will be played April 17-19 and April 24-26.
If Seattle is able to reach that far, they would be just the second MLS club to reach the final since the tournament adopted its current format in 2008-2009. To head coach Sigi Schmid, it’s the biggest prize the Sounders – or any other MLS team – has played for.
“I think it’s the most prestigious cup that any MLS team competes for. The MLS Cup is certainly an important championship - you always want to win your country’s championship - as is the Supporter’s Shield, as is the U.S. Open Cup,” said Schmid, who was the last MLS coach to win the Champions Cup in 2000. “If you can win the championship of your confederation, if you can be the champions of that group, if you can lay claim to the title that says, ‘Hey, we’re the best team from Canada all the way through Panama,’ that’s something that’s pretty special and pretty unique.”
While the accomplishment of reaching the quarterfinals after just three years in the league is one to be proud of, the Sounders are looking to loftier goals as they start their 2012 campaign.
“It’s an important game for the team,” defender Leo Gonzalez said. “We’ve made it this far and we want to move it to the next level.”
To some longtime Sounders fans, there will be a familiar face in uniform for Santos. In 2003, Herculez Gomez played on loan with the Sounders in the A-League, playing 17 matches under current Sounders FC assistant coach Brian Schmetzer.
Since then, he has played for the LA Galaxy, Colorado Rapids and Kansas City Wizards in MLS, before going to Mexico to play for Puebla, Pachuca and Estudiantes Tecos prior to joining Santos Laguna this winter. He has two goals in 11 matches for his newest club.
“He’s really dynamic – always making something happen,” said Roger Levesque, who teamed with Gomez with the Sounders in 2003. “It’s great to see him be as successful as he has been over the years since he was here.”
Santos Laguna finished fourth in the 2011 Apertura, then reached the final before falling to Tigres.
In the 2012 Clausura, they started off 4-0-1, then dropped two of their next three before getting back in the win-column with a 5-2 victory over San Luis on Saturday.
Their top scorer in the last two seasons has been Oribe Peralta, a native of Torreon who came up in the Santos Laguna youth system. He had 13 goals in 23 matches in the Apertura, and has added five goals in the Clausura. He also notched his second goal for Mexico on January 25 against Venezuela. His first came last August in a 1-0 friendly win over the US.
In nine matches this season, they have outscored their opposition 16-11.
“Obviously they’re a team that likes to attack and they have good attacking properties. Their midfielders, their central guys, are good with the ball,” Schmid said. “They’re a team that does well with the ball, that holds on to the ball well.”
To reach the CCL quarterfinals, Santos Laguna went 4-1-1 against the Colorado Rapids, Real Espana from Honduras and Isidro Metapan from El Salvador. It was the best record of any of the 16 teams in the group stage and the greatest goal-differential, at +10.
They have reached the Champions League in three of the last four years, winning their group in all three of their appearances.
“They’re loaded, so it’s a huge test,” owner and general manager Adrian Hanauer said. “Hopefully we’re ready.”