If the Sounders were looking for the most straightforward path through the Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals, they did not get their wish.
This year’s Champions League knockouts are entirely Liga MX vs. MLS, and the Sounders were not spared a road through broken glass when they were paired with Club América. Widely considered the glamor club of Mexico, América owns arguably the most intense home field advantage in Mexico, where they host matches in front of 90,000-plus at the vaunted Estadio Azteca. U.S. national team fans know the name.
But before visions of those steeply rising banks of bleachers invade, we have a home leg to settle on Tuesday.
With contrasting styles not only among teams but among leagues, this Seattle-América clash provides a many-sided die that could roll in any number of directions when the ball drops on Tuesday night. Here’s a glimpse at a few major things to watch when we hit kickoff at CenturyLink Field.
This América side is not a juggernaut
There’s something to be said for América’s past, and their glittering trophy case displaying 12 league titles certainly can’t be ignored. It routinely has the biggest transfer budget of any club in Mexico, and its stable of foreign players, most of whom hail from South America, echoes that sentiment. With this much firepower, this side will always finish in and around the top of the table.
That said, it’s only been a month since Club América coach Ignacio Ambriz last had his job security seriously called into question.
The Mexican league calendar is essentially spliced in half, with the Apertura running through December and the Clausura running into the early summer. Champions are crowned for each, and the top eight qualify for a postseason playoff format not unlike the one in MLS. América was hardly spectacular in the Apertura, finishing sixth in the 18-team table with seven losses in its 17 matches, and individually it didn’t land anyone in the top 10 of goals or assists.
América essentially hung its hat on defense, which was third-best in the league, and that’s where we are seven games into the Clausura. América currently sits fourth in the league table, and its one loss hit hard. A month ago, Pachuca devastated América at home 4-1, launching Ambriz into a hearty round of job defense barely a month into the league’s second season.
The good news for América is that they’ve tightened ranks since then by going unbeaten in its last four. The bad news is that they’ve hardly hit top form, and playing at CenturyLink Field isn’t particularly easy. Even if América is favored to punch through this tie and make the semifinals, it won’t be by much. There are plenty of exploitable cracks in whatever XI Seattle sees.
What kind of lineup will América field?
At least in recent years, MLS sides haven’t had all that much trouble with the group phase of the CONCACAF Champions League. The knockout portion has, however, given the league’s clubs fits, and fitness can’t be discounted as a major reason why. Liga MX has been running with minimal interruption since last summer, and while MLS teams are typically match fit during the summer/fall group phase, they’re still rounding into shape by the time the quarterfinals start every February.
There’s also the issue of how seriously América is liable to take this stage of the competition. Ambriz’s side has hardly acquitted itself perfectly to start the Clausura, and after a middling (by América standards) Apertura, Ambriz might opt to hold back some of his stars for a critical road match on Sunday against a Tigres side that’s basically even with América in the league table.
If América does opt to field a first choice side, Seattle will have its hands full at the back. Left-sided Argentinian midfielder Rubens Sambueza had a goal and two assists in three Champions League group matches last year, and Mexican striker Oribe Peralta has been the bane of CONCACAF for years now. And of course U.S. fans will not forget Paul Aguilar, the raiding wide player who scored the unforgettable goal for Mexico in the 2015 CONCACAF Cup that felled the USMNT.
But whether América goes with all those players is uncertain. Especially considering there is a home match yet to play, it’s not out of the question that Ambriz rests a few key players and then unleashes the beast at home in the second leg.
Contrasting styles should lead to a fascinating chess match
League-wide style of play tropes are often heavy-handed and overdone, especially when it comes to dissecting individual teams within that construct. There are Italian teams that do not plod, English teams that slow down the pace of action and even Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool don’t play at 100 miles per hour all the time. Everything is relative to the opponent, and game plans are not static things.
Even so, América’s style of play will contrast heavily with Seattle’s on Tuesday, and that should be evident from the moment the Mexican club builds its first attack.
The most exciting thing from Seattle’s perspective is that we’ll likely get a first competitive look at the 4-3-3 formation Sounders coach Sigi Schmid has been tinkering with this preseason. Even in preseason looks, the formation is a hot rod, pushing width behind fullbacks Joevin Jones and Tyrone Mears while relying on shallow service from Andreas Ivanschitz to a trio of bulldozing forwards. Watch Jordan Morris gallop at left backs in this setup and you’ll understand why Schmid will want to keep his warhorses off the tactical leash this season.
América will not attempt to set up possession the same way. To watch this América side play, they do tend to work the ball upfield a bit more meticulously, so no matter who takes the field Tuesday, expect América to try and control certain passages of play with soft triangles and a steady diet of up-the-gut attacks based heavily on patience. Don’t be surprised if Erik Friberg and Osvaldo Alonso are so tied up with defensive work that their connection with Ivanschitz in the middle is a bit more stretched than usual.
The pressure resides mostly on Seattle’s shoulders for this match. América has the benefit of the Azteca for the second leg, which means the Sounders can’t afford to not go at América this time around. With the home edge and a fully healthy - albeit in preseason - roster, it’d be a surprise if this was a buttoned up affair. Expect fireworks.