MLS clubs have disadvantages not only in quality of talent but also because most Mexican league teams will have played five or six more games.
TUCSON, Ariz. — The Sounders will tango with Club America exactly two weeks from Tuesday at CenturyLink Field, their CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal date creeping ever closer.
But far from running to the nearest gas station in search of picked-over heart-shaped chocolates and drooping flowers, the vibe around Sounders camp is unhurried.
Tuesday night is the dress rehearsal against Celaya FC at Kino Sports Complex, a friendly against a Mexican second-division side that will provide the closest simulation yet to game action. And it will be telling not only as to whether Seattle’s reworked 4-3-3 formation has any chance of standing up against the defending champs, but which players will slot in where.
The roster is mostly in place, with another round of cuts coming following Wednesday’s scrimmage against FC Tucson. The players that travel to the Southern California portion of camp are likely to be the ones filling out the 28-player roster come opening day — save a backup positional battle or two.
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“Our top 20 guys have been pretty obvious,” Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey said this week. “It’s the guys at the back end that are fighting for spots.”
So, roster in place, does Seattle actually have a legitimate shot at advancing to the Champions League semis for the second time in club history?
“I’d be foolish if I stood up here and said that I’m confident that we’re going to go into Azteca and smash Club America, the best club in Mexico,” Lagerwey said. “We’re playing a very good team. It’s a tough competition. Do I feel like we have a chance? Of course. This is a club that’s beaten a Mexican team before.”
That series was back in 2013, when DeAndre Yedlin announced his arrival as a full-time regular with a dipping volley from distance. The Sounders rallied from a 2-0 deficit to stun Tigres on aggregate.
But there’s a reason — reasons, plural, actually — why no Major League Soccer team has ever won this iteration of the competition.
Most obviously, Liga MX is just better — richer, more established, less financially constrained to build the back-end depth that comes in such handy in this tournament. Mexican teams have won each of the seven editions since it switched over to this format in 2008. Not only that, they’ve also made up all but two of the finalists.
The Real Salt Lake of Jason Kreis and Lagerwey lost to Monterrey in the final in 2011, and Montreal held a momentarily glorious lead against America last spring before surrendering four second-half goals.
The fall-through-spring schedule of the competition also puts MLS teams at a disadvantage. Mexican teams are already five games into the Clausera portion of their regular season.
“For me, I think a calendar schedule would be A, easier to understand for fans and B, would give MLS teams a better chance to win,” Lagerwey said. “… Right now, MLS teams are the most vulnerable. You have Mexican teams that have played eight or nine game by the time we play Club America. We’ll have played scrimmages — which are awesome and great and we’re happy we’re playing Celaya … but that’s still playing in front of 3,000 people in Tucson. You can try to simulate it, but it ain’t the same.”
For players, too, the lack of preparation time for a continental quarterfinal feels at odds with the stakes.
“It’s an awkward one,” Seattle goalkeeper Stefan Frei said. “It’s a big tournament and if we were given the chance to give it even more respect, MLS in general, I think we would. What are you going to do? Are you going to keep all your players for the whole offseason and prep for the game? You can’t really do it. It’s not feasible.
“You just have all these other things that prevent you from giving it the attention that other Mexican teams can give.”
It’s not as if Club America needs much of a leg up. The Mexico-City-based powerhouse has won a record 12 league titles plus a record six Champions Leagues. Mexican international Oribe Peralta has been scoring goals in bunches of late and fellow national teamer Paul Aguilar is an exceptionally dangerous wide player.
For now, the Sounders seem to be approaching the date with little expectation and restrained optimism, a bonus if they pull off the upset and a chance to get sharp for the MLS season even if not.
“It’s a huge opportunity for us,” Lagerwey said. “I think we’re the underdogs. There’s not a lot of pressure on us.”