TANGIER, Morocco — As Nouhou’s eyes traced the empty seats inside Ibn Batouta Stadium on Friday, his smile grew wider.
“It’s time,” the Sounders defender said once he brought his focus back to field level.
The offseason, training, travel, wait — it’s all over. It’s finally time for the Sounders to make their FIFA men’s Club World Cup debut. The stadium’s speckled blue and yellow seats are expected to be filled Saturday to witness to a second-round clash between North America champion Seattle and African giant Al Ahly of Cairo, Egypt.
FIFA will stream the match on its site while FOX will broadcast it live on FS2 and FOX Deportes. The Sounders are also hosting a watch party at The Armory at Seattle Center, doors opening at 8 a.m. for the 9 a.m. kickoff.
The sides held their final training sessions Friday at the stadium located on the outskirts of a bustling downtown Tangier, Morocco. Nouhou spoke for the team and likely most soccer fans in the U.S. when he said, “Everybody is very excited to play.”
With a tournament of this magnitude — the champions of FIFA’s six global regions and one invited team in a loser-out challenge for a maximum $5 million — it’s startling that “play” is the one thing the Sounders haven’t done in preparation to face Al Ahly. They earned their spot by winning the CONCACAF Champions League title in May 2022 but missed the MLS postseason, so the team hasn’t played a traditional match since a draw against San Jose on Oct. 9 at Lumen Field.
The Sounders moved training camp to Spain where coach Brian Schmetzer split the team for a pair of scrimmages against European clubs last week. And that’s the extent of the full-match warm-up.
“The one thing that’s missing in preseason is pressure,” Sounders keeper Stefan Frei said. “Ultimately, when we’re talking about the difference between winning a game or giving up a silly goal at the very end, that’s dealing with pressure and that’s yet to be seen. … It’s the beauty of preseason and the curse. You can play with freedom and try some things out and if they don’t pan out, so be it. But it’s hard to replicate those pressure moments. The pressure of flying here and not being able to sleep properly because you know what’s looming. You can’t emulate that. It’s got to be real. Now it’s real. It’s here. We’ve done our best to prepare and it’s game time.”
Al Ahly, which is the Club World Cup’s invited team since Moroccan host Wydad AC qualified as the reigning Confederation Africaine de Football (CAF) champion, is in playoff form. The Red Devils are undefeated and atop the Egyptian Premier League table after 15 matches.
In the Club World Cup opener Wednesday, Al Ahly dismissed Oceania Champions League winner Auckland City of New Zealand with a 3-0 result, getting goals from three different players. Any tired legs from the quick turnaround will likely be re-energized by the approximate 65,000 fans returning to support Al Ahly.
“This stadium has a lot of the same characteristics of Pumas from last year,” Schmetzer said of the CCL two-legged final series between the Liga MX side. Sounders co-captain Nico Lodeiro nailed two penalty kicks in the final 13 minutes to help draw 2-2 in the opening leg before a vibrant 42,617 fans at Estadio Olimpico Universitario in Mexico City.
“There was a lot of pressure and it was a final,” Schmetzer continued. “In that game there were moments where Pumas looked similar to Al Ahly. They like to cross the ball and are a very dynamic attacking team. So, we were under pressure there and all of those little experiences — like when we went away to Club Leon and New York City FC (in the CCL run) — helped us in our preparation.”
Another boost in handling the pressure is the return of midfielder Joao Paulo. The Brazilian suffered a season-ending ACL injury in the decisive match against Pumas at Lumen Field. His ability to control the ball and make sharp passes will help the Sounders unlock their offense.
Schmetzer said Joao Paulo will be limited in the amount of minutes he’ll play but didn’t specify whether he’ll start. The Sounders will continue to be without Obed Vargas, who subbed on for Joao Paulo against Pumas. Vargas recovered from a lower back injury that ended his season last summer but suffered a right quad strain in Spain.
“This is a game we have to win, so subs will be based on the flow of the game,” Schmetzer said. “I’m not putting anybody on there just because I want to reward them. We’re playing to win.”
Sites such as BetMGM Sportsbook give the Sounders a slight edge to win Saturday despite making their first appearance and being the first MLS team to advance to the Club World Cup. The Sounders have never played an African team, but CONCACAF and CAF clubs have met 12 times in Club World Cup history. CONCACAF leads those matches with a 6-5-1 record.
“They’re bound to lose at some point,” Schmetzer said of Al Ahly. “You can’t keep going, going, going undefeated. We’ll see if we can be the team that knocks them off.”
Well, the buildup is over. It’s time to play.
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