After an announcement earlier this season, you can add Club Tijuana to the list of opponents in the Sounders FC's history of international friendlies. This match has very special importance to the club though, given the competitive advantage to be gained from playing a team within the CONCACAF Champions League style of play.
A relatively new club in Mexico, Tijuana, or Xolos as they have become known, currently sits in second place in Liga MX and has experience in the CCL, a tournament that the Sounders have made a top priority. One of the biggest advocates of the tournament and what it could for the club's international exposure and player development is General Manager Garth Lagerwey. We sat down with Lagerwey to hear his thoughts on the fixture and its implications on the future of the Sounders.
You can view the other SoundersFC.com Q&A pieces here.
SFC.com: What are your initial thoughts on the friendly with Club Tijuana, and what will this mean for the club?
Lagerwey: I’m really excited about it. It’s one of the best teams in Mexico, currently in second place. They have a ton of good, young American players, as well as some good up-and-coming Mexican players. Southern California is potentially a place we can pull players out of. I know I’ve said publically that our number one goal is MLS Cup and 1A is win Champions League. We’re going to start our preparations in March and we’re going to play a Xolos team that’s a great example of the type of team we’re going to play in Champions League.
I think it’s great for the guys on our team that haven’t seen a team like that, or haven’t seen them in awhile, to get that experience. We’ll do it on a big stage and it’s going to be great.
SFC.com: Of course there’s that Champions League factor that’s going to get the guys exposure to that type of soccer.
GL: Absolutely, and Mexican teams tend to take a different tactical approach than MLS teams do as well. So it’s a real functional utility in terms of getting their brains going, “How does he think? How does he think?”
Winning Champions League is really hard, and you’ve got to be focused on it over a period of potentially 12 months from an organization standpoint, and that’s part of what makes it so hard. One of the things we want to drill in right now is that this is important. We’re saying it’s 1A — Goal 1A —this is what this means. We’re going to play a friendly against that team. We’re going to put out lineups that are strong lineups in Champions League to try to get a higher seed, to try to give ourselves the best chance to win in the spring. But you have to take this seriously right now. Going forward, this is the project and hopefully a year from now, literally next April, we’re up there holding the cup and then going off to play the Club World Cup.
You have to take this seriously. You have to push resources into it right now if you believe this is important and this is the way to make the club a global brand.
SFC.com: Why is Champions League important? What is it about the tournament that makes it such a big deal for a club like Sounders FC?
GL: I’m coming from a club where [Champions League] put the club on the map… singlehandedly, this one event. It was because, again, we took it seriously. I remember when we played in the Final against Monterrey, we literally had testimonials coming in from all over the league: people taping video segments saying, “Come on RSL, we can do this.” Everybody was behind us and it was this amazing feeling of having the whole country behind you, trying to win this thing. It’s historic. No one’s ever done it, and no one’s ever done it because it’s really hard. For the Sounders, for our club that wants to be on the global stage, that has attendance that’s in the top 30 of attendances in the world, we’ve got to do things like this. This is worthy of our club. This is something that we’ve got to go and try to achieve. Hard things are worth doing. Extended goals are worth pursuing over 12 or 13 months, but you can only do it if you have focus and resources and dedication over that entire length of time.
It’s important because if you want the Seattle Sounders to matter, you have to win this tournament. You can win an MLS Cup and you’ll matter in the United States. If you want to matter in the region and in the world, you have to win Champions League. If you’re able to win Champions League, you’re going to recruit a different kind of player. You’re going to have people calling you from all over the world that didn’t know who the Seattle Sounders were before, and you can make the team a quantum leap better by going through this process and pursuing this trophy.
It’s the single most important strategic objective the First Team will take on. Everyone knows we’re going to go try to win MLS Cup – that speaks for itself. Champions League is right there, right next to it.
SFC.com: What is it about Club Tijuana that makes it a good fit for the Sounders?
GL: I like the way they play. I particularly like the young Americans that are on that team because honestly, I think it’s players with whom our audience might connect with. They’re good up-and-coming kids that again, hopefully, the type of kids that we’re able to attract into our Academy system in the future.
Beyond that, it’s also a team that I’m familiar with. RSL played with them last year. I thought it was a good organization; they were very professional and very respectful. There are those practical things too. I do think the chance to see [Paul] Arriola, [Joe] Corona, some of the other young Americans, is really valuable if you’re a fan of American soccer.
SFC.com: Given the congestion of the schedule this year, there were two options: Play towards the beginning of the season or play at the end. Why did the club decide to play a friendly at this point in the year?
GL: We had a bye week the third week of March and didn’t want it. We wanted to get a game. If we played it late in the season, it wouldn’t have been preparation for Champions League. It was really important for us to get one of these games before we went into the summer and started playing a bunch of games – playing Open Cup and having players gone for Gold Cup again and all that stuff. We wanted to have our First Team available when we played this team so it would accomplish what we want it to accomplish, which is to prepare us for Champions League. Given that time off in March you really don’t want… you’re ramping up at that point. You’re getting ready for the season. You really don’t want to miss a week or miss a weekend when you’re in that zone.
SFC.com: If you’re a Sounders supporter, why should you get excited for this match? What is it about playing Tijuana this year that should get Sounders fans really amped up in this kind of exhibition setting?
GL: It’s a real exercise. You’re going to get a meaningful game. You’re not going to get a second-string team. You’re going to get their team and get guys who care, and you’re going to get guys who want to beat our guys. Likewise, I think it’s a game that’s going to get our guys up. When you can make it a meaningful exercise, that’s really what you’re going for.
What I’d ask our fans is that if they’ve never been to a Champions League game, if they’ve never kind of gotten into the tournament, that it’s this kind of weird, goofy little thing that you’re used to seeing B-teams in… that’s not how we’re going to treat it. That’s not how we’re going to treat this game. I think it’s the goal that can make the most difference for our club long-term. If you’re a Sounders supporter, if you believe in what the Sounders can be in the long-term, and if you believe the Sounders can matter on the world stage, we have to win this tournament. We have to win the Champions League, and the only way to get there is to play games like this.