As the Seattle Sounders close in on the first Champions League away date of the new campaign, it's sometimes hard to remember the advantages of this competition-especially when long travel, hostile environments, nasty weather, poor field conditions, frustrating opponents, bad officiating move to the forefront. But in many respects, it's the most important tournament the Sounders play in.
Diversify a player's skillset
There are only so many different styles and formations used in MLS. There are no wingbacks and funky 3-5-2 formations, no teams that play with two banks of four from minute one, and so on and so forth.
At least until you get to the Champions League. Whether at home or on the road, MLS sides often get thrown the kitchen sink by Central American and Caribbean opposition. Not only does this give many players (especially the "career-MLSers") a rare chance to see such things from the field, it allows them to be more comfortable if they ever see it in MLS play.
Adapting to a new environment
Much like with styles and formations, field conditions, player and fan safety, and stadium amenities are very standardized among MLS venues. That's not the case in the harsh confines of CONCACAF, where the visiting locker room might have a single bare lightbulb, the field could be a mudpit, the stadium lights might malfunction, and there could be conflicts in the stands. Such environments give players unique experience--experience that can be gained only by being a part of it.
Depth and squad rotation
While the fixture congestion could mean grave things for some teams, a healthy, talented, deep Seattle side can take advantage of these additional games. On a team like the Sounders, quality players are often left out of first team matches. In some cases, for many of the younger players (think Servando Carrasco), the lack of game time might be detrimental to a player's development. But with a slightly toned-down CCL schedule, every Sounder who should see the field will get to do so-and they'll do it in a match that matters.
Attracting new fans
In my experiences attending CCL games last year (San Francisco, Comunicaciones), I noticed that many of the visiting fans were wearing the colors and kits of their countries, not the clubs themselves. After seeing a few dozen Guatemalan flags and kits at the Comunicaciones game (including some in my row), I got to wondering: there are too many visiting fans here to have traveled from Guatemala; several must be Guatemalan-Americans coming to support a homeland club. For some, I'm sure it didn't matter who the club was, as long as it was one from Guatemala.
I would bet that most of those "local" supporters aren't necessarily fans of the Sounders, or even MLS. But if the Sounders can put on a good show, featuring a rabid (albeit small) crowd, and attractive soccer, some of these Central Americans will start to take interest in the club. That can only mean good things for the club and the league, since it unlocks a demographic that isn't all that interested in MLS (except for Chivas, and, to a lesser extent, Dallas, Houston, and LA). If MLS is to truly become one of the world's elite leagues, I believe a strong majority of soccer fans in this country need to, at the very least, take note of MLS.
Going global and European notification
I'm far from the first to mention that the Champions League is the only way to become a strong side throughout the world. Win the whole thing, and play against the likes of Messi and Neymar in competitive matches. But it doesn't take making the Club World Cup to increase your profile in South America, Europe, and the like. Holding your own against, and even taking down, top Mexican teams? That'll certainly register throughout the soccer community. There's only one domestic league in CONCACAF better than MLS, and being consistently competitive against the Mexican cream of the crop will go a long way towards the Sounders goals of being a true international brand.