TUKWILA, Wash. — For MLS fans and clubs alike, the CONCACAF Champions League remains the elusive grand prize for a league looking to expand its influence and prestige. For the Sounders, who open their competitive season Thursday in El Salvador against Santa Tecla FC, it is another chance to pursue the eternal bragging rights of being the first MLS club to win the title in its modern format.
Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer is not one to opine on the relative importance of various competitions, but he acknowledged that the upcoming CCL clash is his team’s current priority as the new MLS season draws near.
“Every competition is important,” Schmetzer said Tuesday. “This has been a stated fact that we want to do well. If you start with Cascadia Cup, Open Cup, Supporter’s Shield, CONCACAF, MLS Cup, you guys can talk about where those rank, but they’re all important to us. The preparation for this preseason has been based around Champions League, so in that case its important, but every game we play we want to win. That’s the culture of the club.”
The Sounders, for the most part, are used to winning. The Open Cup, MLS Cup and Supporters’ Shield have all called Seattle home at one time or another since 2009, but international glory has eluded Seattle, as it has passed by other MLS clubs.
Midfielder Lamar Neagle, who re-signed with the club Tuesday after testing the waters of free agency, said the atmosphere between MLS clubs that weren’t facing off in the competition is largely fraternal.
“The atmospheres you go into are obviously very different from what you play in MLS,” said Neagle, who has 13 career CCL appearances. “Regarding MLS, you’re rooting for other teams as long as you’re not playing against them. You’re rooting for them to do well to show that this league is getting better and better each year and developing. We take pride in getting into the Champions League and then wanting to do well.”
For a still-young league looking to improve its standing around the world, success in the CCL and a strong run at the Club World Cup provide tangible evidence to outside observers that the league is growing in prominence.
Liga MX and its clubs, of course, remain the primary obstacle in the Champions League. For years, Mexican clubs have bounced MLS contenders out of the competition’s later rounds, getting the better of many hopeful American or Canadian club looking to make its mark.
Sounders GM Garth Lagerwey, when asked about the role new influxes of discretionary Targeted Allocation Money would play in allowing MLS clubs to take down their Liga MX counterparts, sounded patiently optimistic:
“I think it’s a great infusion,” Lagerwey said. “It may take one more cycle to really have that money. All the players are new, it’s kind of rushed. I think within the next cycle you’ll be fully up to speed with it. The salary cap has doubled in less than two years. That’s really impressive. I’m really grateful to the owners for having made that investment. It allows us to compete with Mexican teams. It’s incumbent upon those of us who manage teams to use those resources wisely and to make our teams competitive. That’s the big challenge. That’s the way forward. We’re not comparing ourselves to the EPL or the Bundesliga; we have a neighbor with a very strong league in Liga MX. It’s a very worthy opponent, it’s a very hard challenge, but it starts with Santa Tecla for us. We need to be respectful of the entire region. But if ultimately MLS can be one of, if not the best league in the region, that will by definition make us one of the best leagues in the world.”