Sounders FC vs. Santos Laguna
CONCACAF Champions League Semifinals
April 2, 7:00 pm PT, CenturyLink Field
TV/Radio: Fox Soccer, KIRO Radio 97.3 FM
The Sounders are entering uncharted waters on Tuesday night when they host Santos Laguna in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League Semifinals.
While they have squared off with Santos before – last year in the quarterfinals of the tournament – never have the stakes been this high.
Here are a few things to expect from Tuesday night's match.
A different ballgame
With the aggregate-goal series comes different strategies. If the series is tied after the second leg on April 9 in Torreon, Mexico, the first tie-breaker will be away goals, so the Sounders will have to be sure to stay compact on defense – as they did last year when they opened the series with a 2-1 win at CenturyLink Field. With Santos Laguna’s home dominance – they topped the Sounders 6-1 at Estadio Corona last year and went on to trounce Toronto FC 6-2 at home in the semifinals.
This year, they ousted the Houston Dynamo in the quarterfinals with a 3-0 result at home. So the natural reaction may be to try and score as much as possible in the home leg, knowing that Santos is such a beast in their own home stadium, but Sounders FC head coach Sigi Schmid is wary of that approach.
“You don’t want to leave yourself open. We want to win the game and put ourselves in a good position down there,” he said. “I think we learned a valuable lesson down there last year.”
High stakes means high intensity
We’ve seen it before in the MLS Cup Playoffs and in Champions League, the further you get into the tournament the higher the intensity gets. That can sometimes translate to more cards, as tackles take on just a bit more bite and players get more and more on edge.
It also means that players have to be at their best. We’ve seen players on the Sounders play their best as stakes get higher in outside tournaments – Osvaldo Alonso has been to five straight US Open Cup finals for a reason. However, the Champions League is different. Every team at this stage has that player who can will their team to victory regardless of the circumstances. The LA Galaxy have Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane and league-leading goalscorer Mike Magee. Monterrey has shown time and again that Humberto Suazo is that player for them. Santos may have several of them.
The Sounders have their backs against the wall
Odds are not in Seattle’s favor. Santos is among the best teams in Mexico and only one team in the five years of the Champions League has ever been able to oust a Mexican opponent in the championship round. That team was the Sounders FC last month when they bested Tigres 3-2 after a furious second-half comeback in the second leg that saw them score three spectacular goals.
However, the Sounders have struggled in league play, going 0-3-1 to start the season. They need something to jump start their success on the MLS level and they view no more fitting a stage to mount that turnaround than the Champions League – particularly after struggling in a 2-1 road loss to Real Salt Lake on Saturday.
With the short time between matches, though, the Sounders are poised to get back on the field and make amends sooner than later.
“We’re just eager to get back on the pitch,” midfielder Steve Zakuani said. “When you go through that kind of game or the phase we’re going through, you don’t want big breaks between games. You want to play right away.”