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Five Thoughts about Sounders’ return to CCL

Some rust to shake off, but optimistic signs.

FBL-CONCACAF-MOTAGUA-SEATLE Photo by WENDELL ESCOTO/AFP via Getty Images

The Seattle Sounders made their much-anticipated return to Concacaf Champions league Thursday, intent on avenging their disappointing appearance in the 2020 version of the tournament. Even if that flameout was eventually obscured by the pandemic, the CCL is a tournament that the Sounders have long prided themselves about competing in, and a finals appearance — let alone a trophy — is one of the few accomplishments they have left to check off their list.

Of course, an opening round-of-16 match on the road in Honduras was never going rate, but a good performance could certainly set the Sounders up for a bright start to the year.

Where one puts a 0-0 road draw on the spectrum of performances is certainly up for debate, but it’s what the Sounders take home with them as they look to move into the quarterfinals next week at Lumen Field.

No new injuries

One could forgive the Sounders faithful for a bit of skittishness to start the year. The 2021 version of the team was never healthy, which in part explains their disappointing end to the year. And the Sounders are no strangers to unfortunate injuries in the tournament itself. The team wasn’t at full strength Thursday — Josh Atencio, Danny Leyva and Jimmy Medranda were previously ruled out — and Nicolas Lodeiro was known not to be 90 minutes fit. But the other starters mostly got through 90 minutes, pointing to a group that will be ready next week for the return match and the start of MLS play.

Obed Vargas steps into the spotlight

The Sounders at this point have a pattern: Young starlet bursts on the scene to turn the eyes of the fanbase. Danny Leyva gave way to Josh Atencio, and now, Obed Vargas. The 16-year-old got a taste of first team action last year in the Sounders’ memorable 1-0 victory over Austin FC, though that was overshadowed in part by a Raul Ruidiaz wondergoal. Vargas this time around was paired in the defensive midfield with Cristian Roldan and rarely looked out of place, even displaying an attacking intent that might have surprised even himself, when he found himself in the opposition penalty box with an opportunity to shoot. The chance went begging, but it was hardly a disappointing performance in his first international professional start.

Defense ahead of offense

The Sounders struggled a little bit in the opening 30 minutes, particularly on set-piece defending. That’s hardly a surprise coming out of preseason, and after some early shakiness, the Sounders essentially locked Motagua down and controlled the game. As for the attacking proficiency? Well, there are still some kinks to work out. The Sounders returned to their familiar 4-2-3-1 after last year’s experiment with a 3-man backline. While it’s obviously an extremely familiar formation, it will likely take some time to gel given the rust and some new personnel. Still, the Sounders were probably disappointed they didn’t trouble the Motagua defense more than they did, save a chance that new DP Albert Rusnak would put away more times than not.

A result on road

All things being equal, getting a draw on the road is usually a good thing, but when there is an away goals rule, it’s a little less than meets the eye. Particularly when it’s a scoreless draw. The lack of goal will put the onus on the Sounders to win outright in the return leg, since a Motagua goal eliminates the chance of extra time and gives the tiebreaker to the visitors. No that the Sounders particularly want to see an extra-time or penalty scenario, given their recent experience in such situations.

Nicolas Lodeiro and Jordan Morris

It’s fair to say that most concerns about Jordan Morris have long since subsided, given his return at the end of last year and recent stint with the US Men’s National Team. Still, seeing the homegrown star make it through the entire match was just another mark that he is well past his ACL injury. For Nicolas Lodeiro, the situation was a bit more circumspect, and fans hoping to see a return to pre-2021 form had to settle for a solid if unspectacular 63 minute appearance. If nothing else, Lodeiro looked much more mobile than he did at any point in his stop-start-stop 2021 season, which is a good sign if he can build on it.