Fredy Montero should be well aware of the playing conditions in Panama as he grew up playing in neighboring Colombia.
Most Seattle Sounders fans should be reasonably familiar with CONCACAF Champions League, but because it's a bit different than anything else in American sports, it can't hurt to do a bit of a refresher course. But even if you are well aware of CCL and how it works, this story should still be interesting as we'll go over some of the teams the Sounders are likely to face and what kind of chance they have at improving on last year's disappointing Group Stage performance.
The easiest way to think about CCL is to put it in European soccer terms. Quite simply, this is the North American version of UEFA Champions League, as club teams from all over the confederation compete for a single prize in a league format. Right now, we are still in the qualifying stage, as the Sounders will have to beat San Francisco FC in a two-legged playoff in order to gain entry into Group D.
The first of the Sounders' two legs will be played on Tuesday in Panama. Think of this as one long 180-minute game with one half being hosted by each team. The main way this differs from the MLS Cup playoffs, though, is that away goals are the first tiebreaker. Last year, for instance, the Sounders were trailing in their away leg and would have needed overtime, but a late goal tied the score and essentially eliminated any chance of overtime.
If the Sounders can get past San Francisco a spot in Group D awaits. The favorite in the group will no doubt be Monterrey, the tournament's defending champion who gained entry to this tournament when they won the 2010 Apertura. The group's other automatic qualifier is Guatemala's Comunicaciones, which gained entry by winning their league's most recent Apertura and Clausura titles. The final spot in Group D will also be decided in a two-legged playoff as Costa Rica's Herediano will play Guyana's Alpha United.
The group stage would start around the middle of August and is contested in a relatively straight-forward way. The 16 remaining teams are put into one of four groups and play each of the other teams in their group at home and away. The top two teams by points will advance to the knockout stage, which won't take place until next year. In group stage, the first tiebreaker is goal-difference.
At the Sounders' last training session before leaving for Panama City -- where the game will be played -- Sigi indicated that with five days between games, there shouldn't be any artificial limit on who can play when. Likely, this means we'll get a first-choice lineup for Tuesday's game against San Francisco and a very similar lineup when the team plays the Houston Dynamo on Saturday.
This is unquestionably good news. Last year's CCL qualifiers against Isidro Metapan were both played on shorter rest, but more relevantly featured less-than-first-team lineups. Metapan was hardly a powerhouse and the Sounders needed a late goal from Alvaro Fernandez to secure advancement to the Group Stage. Sounders fans would very much like to avoid the same kind of drama.
San Francisco's schedule has not been quite as kind, having played last Saturday. It is worth noting that they are off to a 2-0-0 start in league play, with a pair of 1-0 wins. They also play next Saturday.
It's tough to know what to make of San Francisco's roster. Gabriel Torres is probably their most skilled player, but it does not appear he is currently with the team as he is not listed on the team's website or the CCL website. Playing San Francisco without Torres, a midfielder who has earned looks from Manchester United and La Liga's Valencia, would make life a lot less dangerous. Also not listed on either of those rosters is Ricardo Phillips, a midfielder with more than 100 international caps. In fact, most of the players listed as having international experience on San Francisco's Wikipedia page appear on neither the team nor CCL site rosters.
One thing we do know about them is that they are coached by English ex-pat Gary Stempel, the former manager of the Panama national team. During his two-year reign, he helped guide Panama to the Central American Nations Cup and to the 2009 Gold Cup quarterfinals. Edit: Actually, we don't even know this. According to this article out of Panama, the coach is actually an Argentine named Leonard Pipino ... so, who knows?
Schmid didn't seem to know a whole lot about Stempel, but said his teams were always "well organized," something that has been born out during his time at San Francisco. In two separate stints, he has helped guide Los Monjes to six league titles, including the 2011 Clausura title that qualified them for this tournament. This is their second straight year in CCL. Last year they failed to make the group stage after losing 9-2 to Cruz Azul in the qualifying round.
Flying 3,600 miles to someplace where lightning and thunderstorms are predicted and night-time temperatures are supposed to be in the upper-70s or lower-80s is not going to make life easy. But the Sounders have become reasonably well-versed in playing in less-than-ideal situations this year. They will be pretty close to full health and, their loss to Manchester United aside, are playing as well as any team in MLS. Clearly, they have the more talented side. If they can manage to win, they'll be in stellar position. If they can manage at least a tie while scoring a goal or two, that would be huge as well. Even a loss, as long as it's not by more than one goal and especially if it involves them scoring at least one, is acceptable.