Chivas of Guadalajara is the most popular LIGA MX team among Mexican fans and should have a huge throng of supporters at CenturyLink Field on Wednesday for the opening of a two-leg CONCACAF quarterfinal series against the Sounders.
One-time Mexican national team midfielder Gonzalo Pineda understands what the magnitude would be if the Sounders get by their next opponent.
The Sounders assistant coach spent the bulk of his professional career in Mexico with the Chivas side from Guadalajara, which visits CenturyLink Field on Wednesday night to open a two-leg CONCACAF Champions League series. Chivas is known for using only Mexican players, a fact that has made it a beloved legacy team in that country and a huge draw for expatriate fans no matter where it plays.
And for the Sounders, beating that team would be huge.
“It’s going to be a really good, really good test for our team,” said Pineda, who made 128 appearances over four seasons with Chivas starting in 2006.
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Pineda feels Major League Soccer squads are now better equipped to handle Liga MX teams than when he played there a decade ago.
“I think MLS is for sure much, much better,” he said. “Compared with the Mexican league, MLS is improving year by year. And now, the Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) is getting better and better. That’s going to reduce the gap between the level of the Mexican league with MLS, and I think that now we are very, close to Mexican teams.”
MLS allowed teams to spend an extra $2.8 million in TAM funds this year and again next season on mid-range players earning beyond the league’s standard salary maximum.
This is the fifth time the Sounders have qualified for Champions League play against the best club teams from North America, Central America and the Caribbean. Only once, in 2013, have they made it beyond the quarterfinals, and no MLS side has won the Champions League since it was reformatted in 2008 – with Real Salt Lake in 2011 and Montreal in 2015 the only MLS teams to reach the final.
The Sounders are leaning heavily on Pineda, who as a color commentator for Liga MX matches on Univision got to see Chivas play extensively of late. He has offered tips on how to slow an attack that includes striker Alan Pulido and midfielder Chofis Lopez – who both played key roles in leading Chivas to a national title last year.
“Of course, we have certain tactics specific for Chivas, and that’s why we do scouting,” Pineda said. “But overall I want the team to play like the Sounders. The style where we play good possession, get creative in the final third, finding gaps, playing between the lines.
“We do really well with the types of players that we have. As much as we are facing a great opponent like Chivas, we have to play like normal. As we are used to playing.”
The Sounders beat Chivas 3-1 in a friendly at CenturyLink Field (then Qwest Field) in 2010. But the stakes are different, after the Sounders advanced to the quarterfinals with an opening-round win over Santa Tecla FC of El Salvador and Chivas knocked off a Dominican side.
Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer was blunt in his assessment of what it will take for MLS to gain respect in Champions League play with regard to its standing in the soccer world next to Liga MX.
“Somebody’s got to win it,” he said. “We’ve got to win it to be legit.”
Schmetzer has poured much of his early-season resources into getting through this round. He gambled with a shaky lineup in El Salvador and another laden with reserves for Sunday’s MLS season opener, a 1-0 loss to expansion Los Angeles FC, to have much of his A-team rested for Wednesday’s game.
“We’ve had some success, but we’d like to challenge for the trophies,” Schmetzer said. “We’d like to measure ourselves against the best teams in the region, which includes Liga MX.”
The Sounders had their biggest Champions League breakthrough in 2013, when they eliminated Mexican side Tigres UANL in the quarterfinals. They overcame a two-goal deficit on aggregate to do that, scoring three second-half markers at CenturyLink Field to score an upset series win.
In doing so, they became the first MLS team to eliminate a Mexican opponent in a two-leg Champions League series. But even that triumph came with the knowledge that Tigres UANL had sent a “B” squad of players because they were confident of victory.
Chivas is expected to play mostly its premier lineup Wednesday minus right back Jesus Sanchez, who was injured Saturday. A poll from 2016 found Chivas was supported by 44 percent of soccer fans in Mexico – the highest of any club – and it should have a hefty group of supporters making its way to CenturyLink Field.
Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan said his team has to silence that throng by going at Chivas far more aggressively than it did the opening 20 minutes of Sunday’s loss to LAFC.
“Offensively, we have to make them defend,” Roldan said. “They’re away from home and they have to feel that they are away from home. Sometimes, the Mexican sides come in and play as well as if they were in Mexico. So, they have to feel like they’re in Seattle. We’re going to take the game to them.”