This week the Sounders FC readies for their third effort at the CONCACAF Champions League, starting with a home match with Caledonia AIA from Trinidad.
It will undoubtedly be a much softer landing than the one Mauro Rosales faced upon signing with Ajax in Holland and drawing Italy’s Juventus, Germany’s Bayern Munich and Israel’s Maccabi Tel Aviv in the 2004-2005 UEFA Champions League.
While every year Europe’s tournament of top club teams is bound to have difficult groups involved, this was a particularly eye-opening entry into the reality of top-level European soccer for Rosales after five seasons with Newell’s Old Boys in Argentina.
“It’s a high level in every way. The teams, the stadiums, the organizations,” Rosales said. “It’s everything that you want as a player.”
In that year’s tournament, Ajax finished just 1-4-1 in the group stage, with their lone victory coming at home against Maccabi Tel Aviv.
While their stay was short-lived, it prepared the club for their return trip to Champions League the following year when they finished second in a group that included England’s Arsenal, Switzerland’s Thun and Sparta Prague from Czech Republic.
Learning the mentality that it took to stand tall in a tournament like Champions League helped Ajax into the Round of 16, where they drew 2-2 with Inter Milan in Amsterdam, but fell 1-0 in the road leg to end their run.
“It’s always trying to have the right mentality to play against teams that will punish you every time you make mistakes,” Rosales said. “You have to concentrate because it’s a really tough tournament.”
Now the Sounders are carrying that approach into their third straight appearance in the CONCACAF Champions League. With victories over the likes of Santos Laguna and Monterrey from Mexico, they have tasted success at that level, but ultimately fell to Santos in the quarterfinal.
This year, their group includes Caribbean champions Caledonia from Trinidad and Marathon from Honduras. They will face each team at home and on the road, with the top team from the group advancing to the quarterfinals in March, 2013.
“We take some experience from the last one. We want to represent this team and MLS the best we can,” Rosales said. “We are ready for this one.”
Kickoff of the first match of the group stage is scheduled for 7 p.m. Pacific on Thursday at CenturyLink Field. The second match will come in Trinidad on August 30. The matches against Marathon will be in Honduras on September 19 and in Seattle on October 24.
Tickets for Sounders FC home Champions League matches are available at Ticketmaster.com or by calling 800-745-3000.