Sounders center back Roman Torres, dealing with a sore leg this preseason, is one of several injured regulars who won't play against Santa Tecla FC in next week's CONCACAF Champions League opener in El Salvador.
Much like a year ago, the Sounders now head in to the non-exhibition part of their schedule trying to hold their roster together near-term.
The Sounders emerged from a preseason finale victory Thursday over Sacramento FC of the United Soccer League without any additional injuries to what’s been a hobbled crew thus far. But they’ll head to El Salvador next week for the start of CONCACAF Champions League play against Santa Tecla FC minus right back Kelvin Leerdam, midfielder Osvaldo Alonso and center back Roman Torres and with key veterans still not completely up to full game shape.
In other words, as was the case with the short off-season of a year ago, head coach Brian Schmetzer and his staff will be scrambling just to get through the first month of the schedule. The difference this time is, the Champions League opener next week is 10 days earlier than when the team kicked off the 2017 regular season. “We’re taking it very, very seriously,’’ Schmetzer said of Champions League play, which his team qualified for by winning the 2016 MLS Cup. “We want to get by Santa Tecla because that puts us in a position to compete on a slightly bigger stage.’’
The Sounders made it to the semifinals of Champions League play in the 2012-2013 competition, but never further. Major League Soccer as a whole is viewing the tournament – featuring the best club teams from North America, Central America and the Caribbean – as a showcase for how far their circuit has come.
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With consecutive MLS Cup finals appearances, the Sounders feel this could be their strongest group yet. And demonstrating an ability to go toe-to-toe with powerhouse teams from Mexico is a stated goal of the team’s ownership group.
“I actually think we have a team that is deep enough – when everybody’s healthy – to go deep into Champions League,’’ Schmetzer said. “I think we have enough horses to make some sort of impact. That’s intriguing. That’s challenging for us as a coaching staff to see if we can’t accomplish that.’’
But first, they have to keep things together enough get past Santa Tecla in a home-and-home Round of 16 series that concludes March 1 at CenturyLink Field. That won’t be easy, with the aforementioned regulars already out and the status of midfielders Victor Rodriguez and Magnus Wolff Eikrem still up in the air.
Norwegian native Eikrem only recently obtained permission to play in the United States and needs to get visa issues resolved early next week before making a late flight down to El Salvador for the game. Rodriguez was injured most of last year’s post-season and is being eased back in slowly this preseason.
Also, midfielder Gustav Svensson didn’t make the trip to Sacramento as he deals with a personal matter and it’s questionable whether he’s logged enough minutes so far to fill the valuable role he played at several positions last season. Svensson would be a huge help right now, either at right back or center back. But the team could opt to start Tony Alfaro at center back for the Santa Tecla opener and Jordan McCrary at right back if they feel Svensson isn’t quite up to 90 minutes.
Another option is going with Cristian Roldan or Jordy Delem at right back to start things off.
Schmetzer feels he’s got enough reserve strength for now to go to El Salvador and achieve a decent result. But the bigger challenge will be the return match at CenturyLink Field, followed three days later by the MLS regular season opener against Los Angeles FC.
“That’s the only real challenge that we’re facing from pre-season is just that rotation of squad for those two games,’’ Schmetzer said.
Two others being brought along slowly are forwards Will Bruin and Clint Dempsey, who played in a scrimmage Thursday morning and didn’t feature against Sacramento. That’s left more of the load to striker Jordan Morris, who continued to shine Thursday with two goals in the 3-1 win.
“Whether you’re in practice or playing games, you always want to be scoring goals to get your confidence up,’’ Morris told reporters after the game, in audio supplied by the team. “So, whenever you see it going in the back of the net, it definitely helps.’’
Morris said the team going with two different formations – featuring both one and two strikers up high at times – gives it flexibility to get through these early weeks depending on who’s available to play.
“We have a congested first couple of months, so there’s going to be some rotation I’m sure…that will involve all different players,’’ he said. “The players on the field will come in and do a good job. We have a lot of talented guys.’’