TUKWILA — This just in: The Sounders truly do plan to take the CONCACAF Champions League tournament seriously this time around.
Sure, they said that the previous five times they’ve qualified. But now, unlike their prior appearance two years ago when they sent a split-squad to El Salvador to face Santa Tecla FC in their tournament opener, the Sounders seem to actually mean it.
This time, they’re sending their best players.
“When we went to Santa Tecla and we knew that was our opponent, I kind of was going with two teams,’’ Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said Thursday, as his team continued its local phase of training camp before a weekend departure for California. “I had the team that was going to start the first game of the year — kind of a veteran type — and then some younger guys going down to El Salvador.
“Well, that didn’t work so well.’’
Though the Sounders ultimately crushed Santa Tecla 4-0 in the return match at CenturyLink Field to advance to the quarterfinals, the initial loss set the team on its heels for much of the season.
Now, having qualified for Champions League play again courtesy of their MLS Cup victory over Toronto last November, Schmetzer said he “learned something’’ from that 2018 experience and will go only with his best when the Sounders open the tourney Feb. 20 against C.D. Olimpia in Honduras.
The Sounders ousted the Honduran side in two-leg preliminary round play in 2015-16, winning a memorably acrimonious 2-1 affair at home, then prevailing 1-0 on the road.
“That whole group of players is going to go for both the Olimpia matches and our regular-season start,’’ Schmetzer said. “That’s what I learned from last time. You can’t split the groups. You’ve got to train them all together and try to get the whole group (there). Because you never know what’s going to happen — injuries, run of form, just tactical decisions.’’
For some North American sports fans, taking Champions League seriously runs contrary to other sports where the idea is to win a league title first and foremost. But soccer being a global game, bragging rights as the best club team in your geographical region — in this case, North America, Central America and the Caribbean — is of prime consideration worldwide.
Champions League is especially meaningful to MLS in its desire to become a global power alongside the top European circuits. Before that can happen, MLS must overcome the stigma of being the second-best North American league behind Mexico’s Liga MX and winning Champions League would help.
Since the competition rebranded in its current form in 2008, only Mexican teams have won it. In fact, only three finals in 2011, 2015 and 2018 have featured a squad other than a Mexican side.
“(Champions League) is difficult, but it’s a huge opportunity,” Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei said earlier this week. “It’s one that no MLS team has been able to conquer. It’s a chance. There’s a massive chance there. So, I think we’re excited for that opportunity as well.’’
The Sounders’ deepest tournament run was a semifinal appearance in 2013, losing 2-1 on aggregate to Mexican side Santos Laguna.
Toronto FC came the closest to ending the drought in 2018, losing on penalty kicks to Chivas of Guadalajara after their two-leg final series was deadlocked. The Sounders had actually defeated Chivas at home in their 2018 quarterfinal opener and were still ahead on aggregate by halftime of the return match in Guadalajara, Mexico, before allowing three second half goals.
Schmetzer’s team got banged up physically in that Chivas series and struggled throughout the first half of MLS play.
Given the difficulties defending MLS Cup champion Toronto had in their 2018 regular season — as did Sporting Kansas City last year after a Champions League semifinal run — Schmetzer has a balancing act to perform. It helps that MLS teams had an extra month off this season compared to prior years, when the league finalists received just a six-week break.
With midfielder Gustav Svensson reporting to camp Thursday, only left back Nouhou remains absent because of the usual visa and travel issues from Africa. The team’s center back situation is somewhat precarious with Xavier Arreaga the only returning regular from last year alongside recently signed Shane O’Neill, leaving a thin margin for injury and fatigue in a hefty early schedule.
“We’ve paid attention and we’ll have to make sure that we’re smart and we don’t fall into that trap,’’ Schmetzer said of Champions League burnout. “But again, I think we’ve learned some stuff from our last CCL experience and we’ll try to put those into effect this year.’’