SEATTLE – Sigi Schmid has never shied away from the opportunity to tell a story from the gritty, do-it-yourself days of Major League Soccer more than a decade ago. He’s also never failed to marvel at how the league has progressed at lightning speed ever since, an evolution that in the past seven years that has gifted him international star players and sparkling sellout crowds at CenturyLink Field.
But Schmid shied away from delving too deep into the daunting history of MLS teams in the Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League on Tuesday night, not long after the Sounders settled for a 2-2 draw against Club America in the first leg of the teams’ two-leg quarterfinals series.
And there’s good reason for omission. Only two MLS teams have dumped a Mexican side in the knockout round of this tournament – Seattle in 2013 and Montreal last year – and the Sounders now know they need a win and effectively nothing less in the second leg next week in Mexico City to stay alive.
“History’s there for you to look at, but history is also there to be broken,” Schmid said. “If we just looked at history and said, ‘Well, that’s the way it goes,’ then we might as well stay here and not get on the plane.
“But we’re getting on the plane. And we’re going down there to play. And a win puts us through.”
Schmid largely praised the play of the Sounders on Tuesday night, the opening bell of a new year that rang a full two weeks before the start of the MLS regular season. Given the team’s truncated preseason – 16 other MLS teams have another 12 days before they’ll kick a ball in a competitive match – the Sounders performed impressively against a Mexican team in full stride, twice rocking Club America back on their heels before ultimately letting them back into the match each time.
There were high points and low ones – Clint Dempsey’s two emphatic goals were cancelled out by a pair of defensive lapses that Schmid chalked up to some expected early-season wobbles – but for a first glimpse at what the Sounders could be in 2016, this was a promising first peek.
“I thought we were hungry, and guys were on the same page offensively …” Sounders captain and center back Brad Evans said. “Guys were very positive tonight, and everybody in the locker room was happy with the way we played overall.”
Both Schmid and Evans praised Dempsey and fellow striker Nelson Valdez for encouraging early season form up top, but lamented the mistakes made on a back line still connecting the dots. While Evans, center back Chad Marshall and right back Tyrone Mears are all returning for another season together, Evans missed a large chunk of the preseason with a hamstring injury and offseason pickup Joevin Jones started his first game with the club at left back.
Club America pounced twice on that back line, with Darwin Quintero cutting loose for a breakaway goal in the 45th minute and CONCACAF killer Oribe Peralta stabbing home the all-important equalizer in the 70h minute to send Club America home on solid footing.
While the Peralta goal settled the final scoreline, Schmid bemoaned the timing of the Quintero goal, which came seconds before the halftime whistle and immediately after Dempsey thrilled the crowd of nearly 43,000 fans with a free kick that put Seattle temporarily in the driver’s seat.
Quintero rode the Sounders’ back line most of the night and threatened to break free on a few occasions in the first half, and had a goal called back for offsides in the 28th minute before finally converting in the 45th minute.
“The goal that was more deflating was the first goal,” Schmid said. “If you take a lead right before halftime, you gotta go in with it at halftime. That’s just a rule. We were a little too aggressive, too open in the back at that point.”
Schmid said the second goal was partly due to the effectiveness of Peralta but also to the lack of reps for the Sounders’ backline, which let the Mexican international drift open into the box on Rubens Sambueza’s cross before beating goalkeeper Stefan Frei from point-blank range.
“One of our idioms we always talk about is, ‘You gotta mark players in the box,’” Schmid said. “’Space isn’t going to score on you, the players are.’ And we were marking space on that particular cross.”
Despite the slip-ups, the Sounders enter next week’s do-or-die matchup at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City without much concern for what happened Tuesday night. There’s no existing scoreline to protect, no away goals to seriously consider. The Sounders can advance with a draw if they score at least three goals, but the real path to writing a new chapter of Champions League history is simple.
“We get a win, and we move on,” Evans said. “That has to be our focus.”