With the Sounders just a couple weeks away from taking on Santos Laguna in the CONCACAF Champions League Semifinals, some of us may have forgotten just how long and winding the road to glory is in the Champions League. The competition itself is spread out over 8 months, and MLS teams are often faced with exceptional travel and roster demands. Factoring in the process of qualification, the entire experience can be a very, very long affair.
So, how exactly did the Sounders end up where they are now? Let’s take quick look back at how the team is now just two opponents away from becoming the first North American team to claim the Champions League title in over a decade, and the first to do so under the competition's current format.
Seattle’s path to the Champions League began some 18 months ago, by way of the U.S. Open Cup. The Open Cup – the U.S. Soccer Federation's annual tournament of USSF affiliated clubs – covers the entire spectrum of soccer in the United States, from adult amateur sides and lower-level professional clubs all the way up to NASL and MLS teams. After hoisting the cup in 2009 and 2010, the Sounders made history in 2011 by becoming the first MLS club to win the competition three years in a row, defeating the Chicago Fire 2-0 on a cold, drizzly October evening at CenturyLink Field.
The U.S. Open Cup is one of three ways a Major League Soccer franchise can qualify for CONCACAF Champions League play – berths are also given to both MLS Cup finalists and the team with the highest regular-season point total. Should those teams overlap, there are other routes of qualification, and we’ll delve into the format and history of the CCL a bit later in the week.
The draw for the tournament’s group stage took place in New York City on June 5th, 2012, a full 8 months after the Sounders qualified, and Seattle found themselves placed alongside Honduran side C.D. Marathón (who qualified via their cumulative point total in Honduran league play) and Trinidad and Tobago’s Caledonia AIA, who gained entry as victors of the Caribbean Football Union’s “Champions Cup.” Group play began in early August, and Seattle was dominant throughout the entire stage.
The Sounders first welcomed Caledonia to CenturyLink and scored three first-half goals, cruising to a 3-1 victory. One month later, Seattle traveled to the Trinidadian town of Couva for a repeat performance, earning 3 road points by the same scoreline in front of an announced crowd of 556. Next up for the Sounders would be Marathón, and they’d deal with the Honduran opposition just as efficiently, winning both games handily to finish the round undefeated.
After collecting the full 12 possible points from group play, the Sounders entered the knockout phase of the tournament as the No. 3 seed, bested only by Mexican powerhouses Monterrey and Santos Laguna, who also breezed through their initial four matches and collected the first two available slots by way of goal differential. Matched up against Liga MX leading Tigres UANL, Seattle faced a tough task: Eliminate a Mexican opponent from the competition, a feat that no MLS side had managed since CCL’s redesign in 2008.
After dropping the opener of the home and away series in Nuevo León, but only giving up one goal, the club returned home knowing it needed a phenomenal performance in the second leg. After Tigres opened the scoring, the Sounders knew they would need even more. What followed is more recent history, and one you’ll probably be a bit more familiar with. DeAndre Yedlin and Djimi Traore scored two absolute wonder goals, and by the time Eddie Johnson added a third from a nearly impossible angle, CenturyLink Field was in a frenzy. After the 3-1 win, Sounders fans and players were left just four games away from a historic Champions League title.