TANGIER, Morocco — There are times when Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer will find himself thinking about his beginnings with the club.

For Schmetzer, it started in the 1980s when seemingly the biggest trip for the North Seattle native was playing at Renton Memorial Stadium just south of the city.

With Boeing’s commercial airlines plant bordering the facility, Schmetzer remembers the team couldn’t hear then-coach Alan Hinton over testing for the jetliner engines.

Four decades later, Schmetzer’s ears could still be ringing as his Sounders make history, becoming the first U.S. team to compete in the FIFA men’s Club World Cup. Seattle will play Egypt’s Al Ahly on Saturday (9 a.m. PT) in Tangier, Morocco. Technically, it’s a neutral site but North African fans are unified, meaning if the Sounders can control the ball offensively, they’ll hear an incessant whistling from the majority of the expected 65,000 people at Ibn Batouta Stadium.

“It’s just another testament to the growth of the sport in Seattle, nationally and MLS,” Schmetzer said of being the first in the league’s 26-year history. “There were lean years, we all know, but we’re poised on just breakthrough growth.”

Many likely think the Sounders’ trek to Africa began in 2015 when majority owner Adrian Hanauer lured former general manager Garth Lagerwey from Real Salt Lake. Lagerwey was on a mission to win the CONCACAF Champions League tournament, a prerequisite to qualify for the Club WC — which pits the titleholders from FIFA’s six regions around the globe against each other in a loser-out spectacle where all participants get a cash payout, with the winner earning $5 million.


Or, perhaps, when Lagerwey grabbed the Lumen Field microphone last spring and asked fans to buy tickets for the CCL decisive match against Pumas UNAM, stating it was “for immortality.”

But the first step was on a rain-soaked pitch in El Salvador in 2010 when a plucky Sounders team defeated Isidro Metapan 2-1 in aggregate scoring in its first CCL appearance to advance to the group stage. Seattle’s debut ended in placing last in Group C.

“What I have loved about the Sounders is that they’ve always had the kind of ambition that I expect as a supporter from my club,” said Antti Niemisto, who was in attendance in El Salvador as part of the club’s Emerald City Supporters group.

Originally from Finland, Niemisto started following the USL iteration of the Sounders in 2006 while living in Seattle to complete post-doctorate work in biotech. Since returning home, he’s traveled to four countries and across the U.S. to watch the Sounders play, Finland to Morocco being the easiest flights.

“Already back then, they were talking about these kinds of goals,” Niemisto continued. “I felt like it wasn’t likely (then), but when things get better and better, then someday. Now the day is upon us.”

FIFA, soccer’s governing body, didn’t announce Morocco would be the host country for the Club World Cup until the final week of the World Cup in Qatar. But it didn’t announce the cities where the matches would be held until a draw in mid-January. None of that deterred an expected 200 Sounders fans from making their way to Tangier.


Niemisto simply started his sport-cation in Marrakech while others chose Casablanca or Madrid, Spain as starting points as FIFA trickled out information.

Doug Wade, who lives in Ballard, had a vacation in Barcelona planned eight months ago with his partner. When the Sounders plans were finalized, his girlfriend headed back to Seattle and he flew to Tangier with all the Sounders gear he owns.

As he walked the port city’s cobblestone streets and attended Wednesday’s Club WC opener between New Zealand’s Auckland City and Al Ahly, Wade said he didn’t spot any other Sounders fans. But the WhatsApp group chat notifications starting pinging nonstop Thursday evening as folks started arriving and wondering if there are bars that serve alcohol in the Muslim country. (There are.)

“This is my first away trip,” said Wade of how the Sounders helped check off a bucket list country to visit. “The global community around soccer is such a fun thing to be a part of — to feel like you’re a part of something this big and inclusive. There’s some absolute terrible racism that takes within the sport, but I can sit down and talk to the guy who’s sitting next to me who’s from Morocco for an hour about soccer. We have something common to discuss and that’s incredible to me.”

As with Sounders fans not at the stadium, it was eye-popping for Wade to see the club’s logo alongside the sport’s elite in Real Madrid. Seattle has played friendlies against European teams, but if it were to defeat Al Ahly, playing the Spanish club in the semifinal round would be the Sounders’ biggest sanctioned match in club history.

The Club World Cup began in 2000 but wasn’t played annually until 2005. Real Madrid, which has an estimated 450 million fans across the globe, has won a record four Club World Cup titles — the last in 2018.


Al Ahly is Africa’s most successful club with a combined 143 trophies since its establishment in 1907. The Red Devils have placed third thrice in their nine Club World Cup appearances.

“It’s everybody’s dream to play at an international stage,” said Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan, who joined the team in 2015. “That’s the pinnacle of soccer. To be able to do that with the club that you’ve essentially matured through is really special. But we don’t want to just be here and participate. We want to challenge these big teams and have these big moments and big games because that’s what our club is about.”

The Sounders will celebrate their 50th year in 2024. Since joining MLS in 2009, the club has four U.S. Open Cups, two MLS Cups and the CCL trophy in May 2022.

While the same lineup that defeated Pumas 5-2 in aggregate scoring to advance could start Saturday, no one — from fans to ownership and players — are pretending that’s an advantage for the Sounders.

It’s going to take the club’s gritty nature to continue to make history. The furthest a CCL team finished was Liga MX side Tigres UANL placing second in 2020.

“I didn’t know much about it until getting into the league and starting to play in Champions League,” Sounders forward Jordan Morris said. “Since then, it’s definitely been a dream to play in it. There’s a lot of good teams and obviously MLS teams have come close to (advancing), but we’re a deserving franchise with all the success that we’ve had. We’re looking forward to showing the world what we can do.”