The Sounders have arrived at El Salvador, where they’ll face many challenges in the first leg of their CONCACAF Champions League match.
Brian Schmetzer is not one to overlook any opponent; as a matter of fact, his preparation along with his intensity in daily training are one of his virtues. Nonetheless, subconsciously as an organization it could be easy to allow yourself to think ahead of your current matchup when facing a team from a developing league like El Salvador’s, even if it is a club that won both the 2016-2017 season and domestic cup. While that may not be the case for the Sounders, anytime a team with no official games under their belt prepares for a “Concachampions” game by playing friendlies against semiprofessional teams, the narrative beyond US soil could be of an MLS team that is not worried about the rival at hand.
The game won’t be easy
Not everything that glitters is gold. Despite the MLS Western Conference Champions having a superior team on paper, they have issues of their own. Kelvin Leerdam’s ankle injury creates a huge question mark at RB for Seattle - with an inexperienced Jordan McCrary being the most natural substitution at that position the coaching staff is left to choose between natural position and the calculated risk of someone like Svensson or Delem.
“He’s worked his way on the team, so you can’t fault his work ethic,” Schmetzer said about McCrary. “Does he have enough experience? Can he find the right passes? Does he join in attack? Does he find the energy with some of the attacking players? That will take him a bit, but defensively he’s been good.”
Sure, there are other players that can potentially slide in to play that role, but it creates a void at another spot on the pitch. With the addition of injuries to Roman Torres (muscle soreness) and Osvaldo Alonso (Quad), holes begin to show in the visiting team’s starting 11.
Although Seattle’s motto is “control the controllable,” the humidity and the severe climate change at Estadio las Delicias could influence the Rave Green’s performance on Thursday night. I am told visiting squads can have a challenging time with managing hydration, which can severely affect their stamina. Santa Tecla head coach Ruben Da Silva wants to take advantage of that by attempting to high press his opponent, forcing mistakes and ultimately getting a win at home as they don’t want to have their faith be decided at CenturyLink Field under freezing temperatures they are not accustomed to.
“Santa Tecla will do what it habitually does at home, we will come out pressing up top, looking to win the game,” Da Silva said. “These two games are the most important games of the season, along with maybe reaching a final of the local tournament, but we have to go step by step, we have to first focus in tomorrow’s game. For us this is the most important game right now, it is a final and we have to treat it as such and give 100 percent.”
What we can expect from the home team
Santa Tecla, currently in 2nd place of the standings in their league, will attempt to play a very physical game to disrupt the Sounders’ rhythm, attacking from wide positions. It’s a team that doesn’t give much space in between lines. Captain Gerson Mayen will be the director of the orchestra: distributing the ball, putting teammates in front of goal, and stepping up into the box to also put himself in scoring positions.
The “Tecleños’” primary weapon to push the ball upfield, however, will be dynamic play from the flanks, via Wilma Torres and Marlon Cornejo (who could take over for the injured Kevin Reyes). Formation wise, Santa Tecla will play a flat 4-4-2, focusing on staying very compact to ensure they don’t give up a goal. As Mayen mentioned during Wednesday’s press conference, their best chance of pulling this upset is to be the first one to score, bunker down and get the positive result, and manage the game in Seattle.
“The truth is that there is nothing written yet, we will try to make history in these two games by leaving it all on the pitch,” Da Silva said. “We could pull off a good result here at home and, depending how things play out here, we can plan our stand differently because we don’t know what the result will be here at home, but I have a winning mentality and I think tomorrow we can pull off the victory and go to Seattle to perhaps defend, or, if we need a goal, go on the attack.”
Sounders: Frei; Francis, Alfaro, Marshall, McCrary; Roldan, Delem; Shipp, Lodeiro, Wingo; Morris.
Photo and quote credit goes to my colleague Romulo Guzman from La Culebrita Macheteada @CulebritaM