TANGIER, Morocco — What sticks out from the Sounders’ maiden FIFA men’s Club World Cup match isn’t the ball deflection off Alex Roldan’s stretched left leg, resulting in the winning goal for Al Ahly on Saturday.

It’s the substitution choices of coach Brian Schmetzer.

The Sounders agitated the Egyptian powerhouse, which is making its eighth Club WC appearance and believes this is the squad that can win the title after placing third the past two years. The match was goalless in the 60th minute when Al Ahly coach Marcel Koller called on his subs to prepare to enter the match.

As attackers Mohamed Sherif, Mohamed Afsha and Ahmed Abdelkader prepared to enter, the Sounders bench stalled. Sherif is deadly on ball and Afsha has a growing reputation for scoring in the clutch. They immediately pressured the Sounders once subbed on in the 63rd minute.

Schmetzer waited until the 68th minute to make his move, subbing on midfielder Joao Paulo for Josh Atencio. It was the Brazilian’s first match since tearing his ACL in May 2022, making it understandable why he wouldn’t start, but with the Sounders unable to get the ball to striker Raul Ruidiaz and it being a knockout match, why not put Joao Paulo or any attackers in earlier?

“I thought the game was going OK,” Schmetzer said. Atencio had an on-target attempt in the 51st minute that was easily saved and midfielder Nico Lodeiro had a strong volley that was inches from scoring in the 14th minute.

“We were trying to get through to the end of the game,” Schmetzer continued. “Maybe we sneak a goal. Had extra time come, we would’ve made some more changes. But I felt the game was OK.”


It’s somewhat harsh to critique decisions given Saturday’s international match was the first sanctioned game since October 2022 for the Sounders. But as it became apparent the match was in reach — and a dream faceoff with European titan Real Madrid as a reward — it was puzzling to see hesitation or caution.

Joao Paulo, an MVP finalist during the 2021 MLS season, was a noticeable difference maker once he entered the game. Sounders keeper Stefan Frei thought everyone else “ran out of juice” after Joao Paulo subbed on.

“The first five or 10 minutes was a little bit rusty with the first couple of touches,” Joao Paulo said of his fitness. “Overall, it was good. I need to progress, but it was a good experience even with the loss. We’re going to learn a lot from this.”

As Joao Paulo settled into the match, right winger Cristian Roldan began to labor, forcing a substitution in the 84th minute. Danny Leyva was brought on and had the giveaway that Afsha ultimately seized for a shot that hit the cross bar. Joao Paulo couldn’t fully head the ball away and Afsha’s rebound attempt found goal off a deflection from Alex Roldan in the 88th minute.

“I didn’t have a great week of training just because of my hip and wasn’t able to be in full trainings, so that made it difficult fitness-wise,” Cristian Roldan said. “I felt fine, but you could tell conditioning-wise, I wasn’t at my peak, at my best. … I told (Alex), if he doesn’t try to make a play and they score there and it goes in and he doesn’t stretch out his leg, then we’re complaining to him about not doing that. It’s part of football. You get unlucky sometimes. There are times where we could have cleared the ball or not lose the ball.”

The Sounders earned $1 million for their participation. The other takeaway is playing against an elite opponent from a different region of the world, which is the only way to improve.


But it’s a hard road back to the global stage. They are the first MLS team to win the CONCACAF Champions League, the prerequisite to qualifying for the Club WC.

The Sounders missed the league playoffs last year for the first time in franchise history, thus a final chance to qualify for the 2023 CCL tournament. CONCACAF is expanding the 2024 field to 27 teams. Up to 10 teams from MLS can qualify, the direct routes are either winning the U.S. Open Cup, MLS Supporters’ Shield, MLS Cup or the revamped Leagues Cup tournament this summer.

Then, of course, win the CCL title for a Club World Cup tournament likely hosted in February 2025. A daunting task that has no room for hesitancy once on the global platform.

“We’re super happy to be here and be part of this, but you don’t want to just be participants,” Frei said. “You’ve worked hard to get to this point and we’ll most likely never ever have another chance to participate in something like this, so a missed opportunity. There’s some sad faces in the locker room and some anger, disappointment. That’s all exactly where it needs to be.”

Unlike the CCL win last year, the Sounders aren’t going to compartmentalize the Club World Cup experience. Despite reeling emotions in the locker room, Frei said it was agreed that Saturday was a continuation of the season. And Schmetzer noted multiple positives in the match, especially since it is the first of the year.

The Sounders will play an exhibition stateside on Feb. 18 and open MLS competition against Colorado on Feb. 26 at Lumen Field. Al Ahly will face Real Madrid on Wednesday in Rabat, Morocco.

“(The players) don’t want this to put a damper on the season,” Schmetzer said. “There were some good moments in there, things to build on. We’re trying to build out of the back with a different formation, different tactics. But credit to Al Ahly, they got the goal and they’re moving through.”