Sounders FC seems to be straining the bounds of credulity with the notion that Wednesday’s match in Mexico is “the greatest opportunity in club history.”
Then again, the conceit is not a lot different than Major League Baseball’s annual claim that its champion is the winner of a “World Series,” despite the absence of any other nation in the sport’s postseason exercises.
In fact, that was the point made recently by coach Sigi Schmid when he was explaining the to-do from the club about the importance of another CONCACAF Champions League match Wednesday independent of Major League Soccer play.
“If we win the MLS, were champions of the U.S., not champions of the world, as baseball calls its champions,” he said. “We want to win the MLS Cup, because being champions of the U.S. is big for us. We also have opportunity to win a regional championship, to be best in this (global) region. That something you dont often get a crack at, and we want to take full advantage of that.”
That may sound a tad ambitious for a four-year-old franchise that has yet to win its first MLS playoff series, much less a title. And it is. But the fact that no other franchise in MLS is even close to the Sounders in terms of operational success means that there is a void in the hierarchy in this part of the soccer world that can be seized.
So the Sounders look upon CCL and MLS schedules not only as concurrent, but manageable, conquerable and necessary if they are to be a world club. They make no secret of that agenda.
The Sounders even went to the trouble of skipping other potential preseason tournaments in order to line up practices that best serve the Wednesday-Wednesday schedule of aggregate-goal series with Mexican premier club Santos Laguna, which resumes at 5 p.m. Wednesday in Torreon, Mexico (Fox Soccer Channel).
The Sounders won the first match at the Clink last week 2-1, and a victory, a tie, or a one-goal loss with at least two goals scored (away goals count double), will advance them to the semifinals. The CONCACAF final will be held in mid- to late April. The winner qualifies to play in the FIFA Club World Cup, which is why the Sounders see the tourney as a big deal.
American sports fans used to the primacy of league play have to get used to the idea that in world soccer, clubs often matter more than leagues. It used to be that way in the early days of American pro sports, from town teams to all-star touring teams to leagues loosely built for scheduling purposes only. But the American penchant for organizing, codifying, bureaucratizing and listing everything eventually made clubs bend to the power of leagues.
It also created huge leverage against television networks and companies desperate for programming that they didn’t have to produce. Making a long story short, that’s how the Angels can afford to pay Albert Pujols the equivalqnt of the GNP of Brazil, and why you help by paying $150 a month on your cable/satellite bill.
MLS is nowhere near that level of leverage yet in the U.S. Which doesn’t mean that the Sounders can’t make their own brand and prestige independent of the league. So more than most of their MLS compatriots, the Sounders take seriously CCL play, which started in August with 24 teams in three sub-regions: 12 for North America, nine for Central America and three for the Caribbean. The U.S. and Mexico have four each.
Truth be told, CONCACAF is mostly about the U.S. and Mexico, since none of the other nations are nearly of the same caliber. And Mexico has been dominant; its teams have won 12 of the previous 13 CONCACAF home-and-home matches with MLS teams.
And since the region doesn’t include South America, home to some of the world’s most powerful teams, CONCACAF is definitely second-tier.
But since the Sounders aren’t planning to pick up and move to Sao Paulo or Buenos Aires, they can only win with the schedule in front of them. The club’s resources and strategy are dedicated to winning in CCL as much as MLS, down to making the trip to Mexico a two-day jaunt (overnight in Dallas) to ease the travel burden.
“It’s been a six- to eight-month process to get to the quarters,” Schmid said. “For me as a coach and us as a club, if f were going to enter a competition, we enter to win it. If we we dont want to win it, lets not try to qualify for it.”
For a town whose pro teams have extraordinary difficulty in winning division titles with few as few as three other competitors, the idea of pursuing concurrent championships in separate competitions can be hard to grasp. But let’s all agree that aspirational is better than constipational (and it’s easier to say than CONCACAF).