The worst-kept secret in the Soundersphere is, without question, the mystery opponent for Friendly C. Anyone with an Internet connection has probably figured out that the Sounders will almost certainly be playing C.D. Guadalajara, otherwise known as Chivas, on Oct. 12. (UPDATE: Sounders just released an announcement making this match official.)
This "news" has been greeted by a near audible grown on Twitter, numerous Internet message boards and even our own comments section.
The opinions of the Sounder at Heart editors and writers should be well known at this point -- we unabashedly take credit for #trophiesnotfriendlies -- but I can't find the energy to get worked up over this choice. As much as I support the concept of moving our front office toward focusing on competitive matches, I have come to realize the die was cast for this season long ago and that having three friendlies was all but guaranteed once the season-ticket packages were sold.
Rather than go through many of the reasons over why I find this a palpable, if less than ideal, choice -- mainly having to do with the fact that options are pretty limited at this point -- I think it's worth focusing on what this particular friendly opponent offers from a big picture perspective.
As runners-up in Copa Liberadores, Chivas can safely be considered the second best team in the Western Hemisphere. They are also, arguably, the most popular team not based in Europe or Great Britain. Taken in conjunction with today's match against Monterrey, I see some real opportunity to, at the very least, turn some FMF fans into casual Sounders supporters.
"We haven't done as much in any demographic as we'd like to," Sounders GM Adrian Hanauer said. "Even with the full stadium we'd like throngs of people on waiting lists and people of every demographic completely engrossed in the product and the brand. That said I would for sure have to say we probably haven't broken into the Latino community as much as we would like to."
While the scheduling of Chivas has been called a cynical ploy to lure Latino soccer fans into Qwest Field, I see something far less sinister. It would be one thing if Hanauer was treating this like a magic bullet toward expanding the fanbase. Instead, he seems to have a very real understanding that reaching that demographic is a process.
"I've said this from the beginning, it's going to be an evolution. It's going to take time. Also, I don't think it's about bringing Chivas to Seattle one time. It's not about signing a Mexican player one time. It's about basically continuing to improve the product and play great, quality, entertaining soccer and, ultimately, I think what will really be the game-changer is when we beat teams like Monterrey in real competition on a regular basis. [emphasis added by sah]
"Again, I have this sense, I think you see it with the U.S. national team now, that second- or third-generation Latinos in this country are starting to get a little more interested and in some circumstances switch allegiances because they want to follow a winner, and the U.S. is winning now. So when the Sounders and the Columbus Crew and Real Salt Lake and the Galaxy beat Chivas and Cruz Azul and Monterrey and Pumas on a regular basis, I do think there's going to be a shift. So we'll continue to engage the Latino community, but not pander to the Latino community."
It is this kind of talk in which I find much hope. Hanauer does seem to have an understanding that scheduling Chivas is a great way to get a Mexican soccer fan into Qwest once, but the only way to keep that fan -- or any other sophisticated soccer fan -- is to show them an attractive product.
That's where I hope the 1-2 punch of today's CCL match and October's friendly can help make the Sounders into the breakthrough team that has so far been absent in MLS. In both matches, significant numbers of fans who generally ignore the team and the league will have a chance to see a Sounders side that will hopefully surpass their expectations.
To be sure, today's match probably plays a more significant role toward that end. Showing that an MLS team can match a Mexican side in both style and substance -- with more focus on substance -- is key, especially in a match that matters.
Supporters also have a role to play. Showing up tonight, more than worrying about a match in October, will send a clear message that we "get" international soccer. This is our chance to show the world that we create the best atmosphere in North America no matter who the Sounders play.
With more than 19,000 tickets already sold and a walkup potential that could see the attendance number press toward 25,000, there's a decent chance Monterrey supporters could show up in significant numbers. Hanauer doesn't seem worried about Wednesday turning into a de facto road match, but he does seem to welcome the opportunity to win hearts and minds.
"I think it'll be dramatically a Sounders home game, but I hope there are a few Monterrey fans," Hanauer said. "But what I hope most is that over the course of the game they turn into Sounders fans."