Micheal Azira 150825

Sounders FC preparing for wild Champions League match in Honduras

The finish will go down in Sounders FC lore as one of the wildest in the team’s history. Seattle trailed visiting CD Olimpia 1-0 in its second Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League fixture on August 19, and as the game stretched into the 90th minute, Erik Friberg stuck home a header to equalize. You got the sense hikers in the Olympic Mountains could hear the roar.

With most of the crowd now expecting a point, the atmosphere in CenturyLink Field eased off before Dylan Remick was scythed down in the box in the 95th minute. Brad Evans drilled the penalty kick two minutes later, a riotous blast bookended by shoving matches and heated words from both sides. Seattle won the match 2-1 with both of its goals coming after the 89th minute. Pandemonium.

“It’ll probably add a little extra spice [to the second meeting] than it would’ve been,” Sounders FC Head Coach Sigi Schmid said. “It probably gets their crowd a little more into it, maybe even helps their attendance for the game, just the way the last one ended.”

2015-16 Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League

The win facilitated dual outcomes. On one end, Seattle put itself in fine position with four points from its first two group matches and held the all-important home serve. If there’s any key in Champions League play, it’s collecting as many points at home as possible and clawing anything you can from away matches. Sounders FC has done admirable work in both regards through its first two matches in this competition.

The other outcome is perhaps not quite as inviting. The first leg between these teams was eminently physical, and while even Olimpia coach Héctor Vargas acknowledged in the postgame that the penalty was legitimate, Olimpia’s fans might have other opinions. So when Sounders FC strides into the Estadio Nacional in Tegucigalpa, Honduras on Wednesday, they’ll likely bear the brunt of that passion.

The good news is they’re steeled for the moment.

“I think I know how Latin American teams think, so I’m pretty sure they’ll be a little fighty, a little more aggressive in the field and off the field,” said veteran midfielder Gonzalo Pineda, who’s played in Honduras as a member of the Mexican national team. “I think they’ll try to put pressure even from the fans. That’s a good scenario for us. We like to play those kinds of games.”

Sounders FC is currently the only team in Group F to have played two games, and a positive result in Honduras will give them at least five points from its first three matches, which would include two results away from home. Last season, group winners advanced with an average of 9.1 points, which means Seattle needs an average of five points from its last two group matches to feel completely secure. In reality, a draw away and a win against the Vancouver Whitecaps at home on September 23 would do it.

Getting there, though, will be no easy task. If Olimpia proved anything during its visit to Seattle, it’s that the Honduran outfit is resourceful. After a goal inside the opening 10 minutes, Olimpia used every art at its disposal - including those of the darker variety - to wind the clock. The fact that Olimpia rested most of its starters in its weekend league match to respond with vengeance at midweek only heightens the stakes.

Those techniques will almost certainly intensify at the Estadio Nacional, a 34,000-seat concrete bowl that sits above an elevation of 3,000 feet. Last season, the Portland Timbers visited its hostile confines with a healthy lead in its group, and Olimpia scored twice inside the opening five minutes in front of a raucous, full-house crowd to steal away the knockout spot with a 3-1 victory.

The game was a physical maelstrom, and the Timbers somehow managed to accumulate 17 fouls and seven yellow cards. Olimpia picked up just three. All part of the gig playing away from home.

“They will try to put pressure on us, and they will try to not let us play a little bit, a lot of fouls,” Pineda said. “We need to be prepared for that.”

The month of August is a grinder for Sounders FC, which is attempting to fit in new faces at key positions while slogging through eight matches in a span of 30 days covering thousands of miles of travel. That’s stretched the team’s depth as Osvaldo Alonso and Clint Dempsey both work back from injuries that’ve kept the Seattle mainstays out of the lineup for most of the summer. The team did receive good news this week in the form of left winger Marco Pappa’s return. Whether he plays or not, Pappa is traveling with the team to Honduras.

Continental competition only stretches that depth further, like a taut rubber band struggling to keep its shape under extreme duress. Seattle’s small two-match turnaround was halted last weekend in a 2-0 loss at Real Salt Lake, and a trying Cascadia Cup match at home against Portland awaits on Sunday. Dropping a Champions League match into that melee makes things tougher, but the squad is looking forward to proving its mettle in the overheated crucible of Central America.

“It’s not maybe the most ideal timing, but it is what it is, and we have a really deep squad,” emergent left midfielder Aaron Kovar said. “I think that’s one thing this team’s really prided itself on, is not having just one through 18 but all the way to almost a whole second lineup that’s real quality players. It’s a good opportunity for all of us to show that.”