Champions League returns to CenturyLink

For the last two years, that tournament of the region’s best has included the Sounders FC and this week they get off to their third effort in the tournament.

Each year, the best clubs in Major League Soccer get to measure themselves against the best of North America, Central American and the Caribbean in the CONCACAF Champions League.

For the last two years, that tournament of the region’s best has included the Sounders FC and this week they get off to their third effort in the tournament when they face Caledonia AIA from Trinidad in the first match of the group stage at CenturyLink Field on Thursday.

The Sounders have qualified each of the three years by winning the US Open Cup, an accomplishment they can attain a fourth consecutive year in the Open Cup final on August 8 against Sporting Kansas City at Livestrong Sporting Park.

That has put them in the elite company of the top, most storied teams in the region and is viewed in very high regard by the club.

“It’s important because it’s our international tournament. It’s our opportunity to show how good we are within our region,” Sounders FC head coach Sigi Schmid said. “This is the beginning of that journey and being recognized within your region is very important for our league as well.”

Each year, the tournament invites the winners of the MLS Cup, Supporters’ Shield and US Open Cup, as well as the runner up in the MLS Cup. Toronto FC has also gained entry each of the last three years by winning the Canadian Championship.

While each of those trophies represents a great triumph in the league and country, winning the Champions League goes a step further, extending the boundaries of success beyond domestic borders.

“Winning the MLS Cup is certainly highly important and a high priority for this team. But in terms of international soccer and international recognition, being able to win the Champions League is going to bring you the most awareness of all the trophies we play for,” Schmid said.

Thursday’s match at CenturyLink Field is the first of four matches the Sounders will play in the group stage this year, a change from the previous format that included four teams in each group. The alteration means the Sounders will play just two road games, drastically reducing the travel the club will face in the prestigious tournament.

However, while previous years’ tournaments took two teams from each group into the quarterfinals, this year only the winners of each group will advance, putting much more importance on each match.

“When you play four games instead of playing six games it takes a little bit of the workload off. That part of it is positive. You also now have to be the group winner, so being second doesn’t work,” Sounders FC head coach Sigi Schmid said. “For us, compared to last year, I think we did really well on the road last year. What we’ve got to do is make sure we get the wins at home. If we win at home and we tie on the road, we’ll be where we want to be at the end of the day.”

For tickets to Seattle’s lid-lifter in the 2012-2013 CONCACAF Champions League, visit Ticketmaster.com.

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