A desire to ascend and be among the top football clubs in the world is understandable.
We’re talking Barcelona, Liverpool, Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich — clubs the most casual soccer fan would name.
The Sounders rank 29th globally in average attendance (42,797) from 2013-2018, according CIES Football Observatory, which would make them a top-tier club in that respect.
On the field, the Sounders are 212th in the Netherlands-based Football World Rankings, which calculate match wins from 40 selected leagues and 10 international tournaments.
Seattle’s desire to sync its support prestige with its performance is why there’s a buzz and focus around the CONCACAF Champions League. Where the Sounders winning the MLS Cup in November is a step, the Champions League title would be a jump.
“It’s a big deal,” said Garth Lagerwey, the Sounders general manager and president of soccer. “ … The way we’re going to look at it is we’re going to have a first season, where we’re in Champions League. We’re going to have a second season where we’re in the summer … and we’ll have a third season where we get the band back together and we’re playing at full strength to end the season.”
That means the Sounders are looking at playing at least a 44-game schedule if it were to be crowned Champions League winners in May. That’s eight Champions League matches, a 34-game MLS slate, one U.S. Open Cup match and one Campeones Cup match. (The Campeones Cup began in 2018 and pits the MLS Cup winner against Mexico’s Liga MX winner of Campeon de Campeones [Champion of Champions]).
Lagerwey knows Summer 2020 could be a grind as the spine of its lineup — striker Raul Ruidiaz (Peru), midfielders Nico Lodeiro (Uruguay) and Gustav Svensson (Sweden) and center back Xavier Arreaga (Ecuador) — could possibly be called up for international duty for two months to compete in Copa America or Euro 2020 from June 12 to July 12.
“We’re going to play probably a lot of young guys,” Lagerwey said, to compensate for absences.
Champions League opens play in February and crowns its winner in early May. Seattle’s defense of its MLS Cup starts with a season-opener against the Chicago Fire on March 1, creating a three-month overlap between competitions.
Like the world’s greatest clubs, Seattle doesn’t want to compromise winning domestically to advance internationally. Toronto FC reached the Champions League final in 2018 while Sporting Kansas City lost in the semifinals last spring. But both failed to make the ensuing MLS postseason.
“While I’m willing to tip the balance, I don’t want to tip so far into Champions Leagues that we’re missing the playoffs on the other side of things,” Lagerwey said.
The Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) has held various forms of a regional tournament since 1962. Undergoing another makeover in 2017, the 2020 Champions League bracket rounds up 16 of the region’s top clubs for a two-leg aggregate series where away goals are the sole tiebreakers. For the U.S., the 2019 MLS Cup-winner, Eastern and Western Conference leaders and 2019 U.S. Open Cup champion automatically qualify for the Champions League.
The overall winner of the Champions League advances to the FIFA Club World Cup. Even considering the core roster expected to represent the Sounders in Champions League play has won two MLS Cups in the past four years, a Champions League crown is an REM-level dream for Seattle.
No MLS team has ever won a CONCACAF Champions League title. Toronto FC (2018), Montreal Impact (2015) and Real Salt Lake (2011) are the league’s only clubs to reach the Champions League final.
CONCACAF held its 2020 draw Monday in Mexico City, and Seattle is feeling confident it can be MLS’ first Champions League victor. For one, it wouldn’t have to play Liga MX powerhouse Tigres UANL until the semifinals, if both teams advanced. And seven-time CONCACAF champion Club America, along with new-wave MLS powers Los Angeles FC and Atlanta are on the other side of the bracket.
Then there’s the history. Seattle — which is making its sixth overall Champions League appearance — faces Honduran side CD Olimpia in the opening round in February. In 2015, the Sounders topped Olimpia in group play to advance to the knockout round, where it lost to Club America.
“We beat Olimpia by the skin of our chinny-chin-chin,” Lagerwey said of the 2015 win against Olimpia. “We lost to them down in Honduras, so it’s not an easy draw by any stretch of the imagination. But it’s one that hopefully we can make work.”
The real question is how does a team win anything without center backs?
Seattle has 19 players under contract, 11 of which logged postseason minutes last fall. The biggest holes within Seattle’s roster are along the back line, with Arreaga the only signed center back.
The Sounders made offers to return Korean defender Kim Kee-hee for a third season, but the initial deal was rejected. A similar negotiation happened with Panamanian center back Roman Torres, prompting the fifth-year veteran to announce his departure via social media in November.
Lagerwey, however, remains in discussions with both players’ agents in hopes of, at least, getting Kee-hee back. The club would like to have the bulk of its roster decided before it opens training camp Jan. 11. But MLS and the MLS Players Association remain in talks regarding a new collective bargaining agreement to replace the one that expires in at the end of January, meaning clubs don’t know the salary cap yet.
Seattle maxed its salary cap last season, and even with clearing winger Victor Rodriguez’s million-dollar contract from the books, Lagerwey said winning the league championship triggered bonuses for other players.
“That’s the note of caution I’ve been putting out to everybody,” Lagerwey said. “We lost a lot of big pieces off the championship team but we have the most critical pieces. … We really are going to have to have three different team makeups in terms of how we approach the season based on who’s going to be available. It’s going to be a real balancing act for the coaching staff.”