Even though a Champions League win over C.D. Olimpia on Wednesday would give them a six-point lead in Group F, part of the Sounders’ focus — and a chunk of their squad — remained in Seattle, where it will host Portland on Sunday in a match with significant Western Conference playoff implications.
The Sounders landed safely in Honduras on Tuesday afternoon, surviving the white-knuckle approach to the notoriously short runways at Tegucigalpa’s airport ahead of Wednesday night’s CONCACAF Champions League match against host Olimpia.
But even though a win would give them a six-point lead in Group F, part of the Sounders’ focus — and a chunk of their squad — remained back in Seattle, where they will host rival Portland on Sunday in a match with significant Western Conference playoff implications.
“The important game for us is Portland,” Seattle coach Sigi Schmid acknowledged Monday. “Our focus is on that. But we know we have this game in Honduras in the Champions League, and any time we put a team out, we want to do well.”
The team Schmid puts out Wednesday is likely to be light on big names and similar to the squad that downed Olimpia 2-1 last week at CenturyLink Field.
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Forwards Obafemi Martins and Nelson Valdez are easing back to full strength, and both played significant minutes during Saturday’s 2-0 loss at Real Salt Lake. Clint Dempsey, Osvaldo Alonso and Andreas Ivanschitz are all dealing with injuries.
Because the travel is so grueling — the Sounders broke up the trip with an overnight stop in Houston on Monday but will come all the way back to Seattle on Thursday — extra consideration was given to squad selection. The players who didn’t make the trip are training independently this week with Sports Science and Performance Manager Dave Tenney and assistant coach Ante Razov.
The unorthodox, three-team Champions League groups have made Wednesday’s match even more insignificant. Because Olimpia and Vancouver must play each other twice in the meantime, the Whitecaps-Sounders game next month at CenturyLink still could decide Group F.
“No matter what happens in this game on Wednesday,” Schmid said. “It’s going to come down to our last game against Vancouver.”
Yet to focus only on the relative lack of stakes is to miss the charm of the competition.
The Sounders are playing a competitive match in Honduras, measuring themselves against one of Central America’s powerhouses, staring up at a bowl filled with howling home fans keenly aware that their club needs at least a point to stay alive.
“It’s kind of one of those cool adventures I think a lot of guys are looking forward to,” midfielder Aaron Kovar said.
And there hasn’t been a lot of time for blood pressure to settle from the explosive conclusion to last week’s match, when Seattle scored in the 90th and 97th minutes and the teams got into a shoving match next to Olimpia’s goal.
“It’ll probably add a little extra spice,” Schmid said. “It’ll get their crowd a little bit more into it, probably even help their attendance.”
So although Schmid is unlikely to have brought his full group of veterans to Honduras, it’s vital that he included just the right blend of wide-eyed rookies and steadier hands.
Midfielder Gonzalo Pineda, for one, knows this competition well. And as rowdy as the Estadio Nacional is likely to be Wednesday night, it’ll have nothing on the rude welcome he used to get when he played in Honduras with the Mexican national team.
“I will let them know what it’s like to play there,” Pineda said. “I think we are prepared. It’s just soccer. You don’t have to hear anything. You just have to play soccer.
“If I have to fight, I will. But I also always want to keep myself calm, no silly fouls, no yellow cards, no red cards. I will be calm, but also there to defend my teammates. If I have to play a little harder, I will.”