Tough task lies ahead as Seattle Sounders head south to Estadio Azteca

SEATTLE — The air seemed to be sucked out of the place the moment before the ball hit mesh. It felt as though Clint Dempsey’s free kick hung in the air for an interminable moment, the curvature guiding it around and then inside the post on an impossible flight path before it floated into the back of the net.

CenturyLink Field hung on that moment. And then it exploded into noise.

Dempsey’s free kick was the first salvo of the match, a 44th-minute mantlepiece that obscured the fact that the Sounders had yet to even start their regular season. This was Club América, after all, the glitziest club in Mexico and certainly its most decorated. And Dempsey had just done a very Dempsey thing, and in the Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal first leg no less.

Before the buzz had even subsided - less than 90 seconds later, in fact - América snapped back with a break, and a clearing ball found incendiary forward Darwin Quintero. The Colombian had been threatening to break the Sounders’ unnaturally high defensive line all half, and he’d finally done it, blitzing through Brad Evans and Chad Marshall and slotting home a goal seconds before halftime.

Tie game, just like that. Welcome to the madhouse that is the Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League.

That scene repeated itself in slower motion in the second half, when the Sounders again took a lead behind a Dempsey header before Oribe Peralta snuck in behind for the 2-2 equalizer with about 20 minutes to play. The Sounders, clearing showing the late-match wear inherent in preseason, slowed as the game moved toward the final whistle, and on we march to the second leg without conclusion.

This was, in casual terms, not exactly what the Sounders wanted.

Tuesday’s 2-2 draw was hardly a worst-case scenario, but it’s not how any team would’ve hoped to take an aggregate series into the vaunted Estadio Azteca in Mexico City for the second leg. The result here means Seattle can’t draw in Mexico next week unless the game ends at 3-3 or higher, thus tipping the away goals edge toward Seattle. Otherwise, Seattle has to win to advance to the semifinals. Given the unlikeliness of the former scenario, the latter has to be the goal, difficult though it may be.

It’s not exactly a death knell, but the prognosis could’ve been better.

So what’d we learn on Tuesday? Here are three things.

This 4-3-3 will confuse the heck out of some MLS defenses

It’s early to make any overarching prognostications where Seattle is concerned about this MLS season, especially since there’s no accounting for injury and national team absences. But consider this: the front three of Jordan Morris, Nelson Valdez and Dempsey might be the best front three in MLS if they play like this every week.

The true measure of the 4-3-3 is not necessarily in the overlap, but in how the front three interacts with the central core of the midfield. The 4-3-3 will always be a dangerous wide setup - and it was for Seattle on Tuesday - but it won’t be truly killer unless the middle is firm. That’s why clubs have used a false nine in this setup in the past; to involve the central midfielder and invite interchange. In that regard, the admixture between Andreas Ivanschitz and the front three was tremendously effective.

Ivanschitz was marooned at times out wide late last season as a left midfielder in the 4-4-2, but it’s already clear he’s more involved up the gut. With Erik Friberg and Osvaldo Alonso providing cover, Ivanschitz tucked underneath and carved through the soft América central defensive midfield with something approaching impunity.

All three front-line players, when mixed with Ivanschitz, overlapped, interchanged positions and looked for close-in one-twos. When it’s clicking and healthy, this will be a tough attack to corral this season.

The defense can use some fine-tuning

There is no great ignominy in being cut through by América, which has some of the best attacking talent on the continent. After the match, Sounders coach Sigi Schmid even admitted the Sounders were “a little too open” at times, creating some open canyons the central defensive combination of Marshall and Evans were forced to deal with. So it wasn’t all on any one group.

That said, the connection between Evans and Marshall in particular will need some time early in the season to gel. Because it wasn’t quite there on Tuesday.

The first goal - Quintero’s blazing run - had as much to do with the team approach as it did the lack of recognition at the back. The Sounders played almost suicidally high at times on Tuesday, and Quintero knew it. With Marshall and Evans both trotting toward the center line, Quintero sprinted off the blocks almost as soon as the ball left, and to use an old football term, if he’s even, he’s leavin’.

The second was a breakdown in communication. On on incoming cross, Peralta - the forward who was so deadly to the Sounders in past CCL visits with Santos Laguna - was allowed to float unmarked between Evans and Marshall. With no pressure on either shoulder, Peralta poked home the tying goal at 2-2, the one that made Seattle’s task so tall in Mexico City.

The best thing about the Marshall-Evans paring is in their differences. Evans is among the best distributive center backs in MLS, and Marshall is almost unbeatable in the air. With their powers combined, the Sounders posted one of the best defenses in MLS last year. It’ll need some time to rev back up to that speed.

Take a cue from the Montreal Impact - it ain’t over

The Montreal Impact’s 2014-15 run to the brink of a CONCACAF Champions League trophy captured the continent’s attention like no team before it. The Impact were poor in 2014, and yet they managed to down Pachuca and Alajualense in the knockouts to make it to the final. There, they met América.

The first leg should be an instructive piece of work as Seattle sets its gaze on the Azteca next week.

The Impact plucked that match like a tuned lyre for 88 minutes. After Ignacio Piatti put the Impact ahead in the 16th minute, the Impact ducked and dodged América attacks for nearly the entire match. As the home side poured more lead on Montreal’s defense, the Impact only seemed to gain confidence.

The dam broke with less than two minutes left. Peralta - that Peralta - nodded home a header in the 89th minute to knot the game at 1-1 and take it back to Montreal tied. The Impact wilted in the second leg and América returned to Mexico with another CCL trophy.

But the fact remains that as formidable a defensive rampart as Estadio Azteca may seem - all jutting steel and altitude-thinned air - it has nearly been breached by an MLS team with fewer weapons than this one. In addition, Seattle has a week to prep for this match with no interruption. América has an important Liga MX match against Tigres three days before the quarterfinal rubber match.

If Seattle follows Montreal’s tack, they’ll play on the counter and throw as much forward as they can muster in the opening 20 minutes. If that yields a goal, they can afford to pack the box and emergency defend for their lives. If not, things get more complicated.

Either way, a win pushes Seattle through to the semifinal. That much is certain. Getting there is the hard part.