Fresh off their second MLS Cup appearance in as many years, the Seattle Sounders now have their eyes on an even bigger challenge: the CONCACAF Champions League.
The CCL, like its more famous European brethren, is an annual tournament featuring the best clubs from North America, Central America and the Caribbean. Teams qualify based on success in their respective domestic leagues with the eventual winners representing the region in the FIFA Club World Cup.
The Sounders have qualified for the 2018 edition following their 2016 MLS Cup win as the CCL enters the first year of its new knockout round format that runs from February to April. Seattle is joined by 2016 MLS Cup runners-up and Canadian Cup winners Toronto FC, 2016 Eastern Conference Champions the New York Red Bulls, 2016 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup and Supporters’ Shield winners FC Dallas and 2016 Supporters’ Shield runners-up the Colorado Rapids.
The draw will be held on Monday, Dec. 18, in Miami and will be the first competitive match the Sounders play to begin 2018.
“This is a huge challenge,” Sounders General Manager & President of Soccer Garth Lagerwey said on Tuesday. “When owners make and the league makes the kind of investment they have in [Targeted Allocation Money], we’re trying to go toe-to-toe with Liga MX. There’s no ducking that.”
An MLS club has never won the CCL, but Real Salt Lake became the league’s first team to reach the finals in 2011 when Lagerwey was the general manager. He believed then, as he does now, that it is the best way to establish legitimacy in the region and introduce a club to the world stage. He instrumented a “long-term organizational commitment” to the tournament and led RSL to a large amount of international success for a relatively small franchise.
Now going into his fourth year with the Sounders, his ethos remains unchanged.
“No one is saying that now all of a sudden our payrolls are level with Club América, but we’re going to take them on,” he said. “We’re going to try to beat them and we believe that the way to grow our league is to win Champions League. That’s an ambition of our club, it’s an ambition of our league and it’s incumbent upon us to get better in an effort to try and go out and win the thing.”
In order to compete with high-profile Mexican clubs, who have won every year since the current Champions League Era format was introduced in 2008, the priority is compiling a deep roster of talented players who are capable of logging upward of 50 matches in a calendar year. Lagerwey spoke with the LA Galaxy staff who led a dominant run in Carson, Calif., from 2011-14, a four-year period that saw the club win three MLS Cups, about the difficulties of managing player minutes, and he’s aiming to use some of their techniques to help sustain Seattle’s high level of success.
“There’s just not a lot of time again to catch up,” Lagerwey said of the short offseason. “It’s very unlikely that you’re going to play [48 matches], but you have to be prepared to be able to do that. It’s a long time to play, so we really have to look at the depth of the squad as we build it because I think we’re going to need absolutely everybody in this coming year. We’re going to need guys who can play 30, 40 games potentially in terms of fielding our best teams.”
The first leg of the Round of 16 will take place between Feb. 20-22 with the return leg between Feb. 27-March 1.