Almost from the moment the Seattle Sounders first started trying to market their participation in Concacaf Champions League — way back in 2010 — there’s been an inclination to tie success in that tournament to the first step in getting to play teams like Barcelona or Chelsea in a “real competition.”
Even in the immediate afterglow of actually winning CCL, Sounders GM Garth Lagerwey couldn’t conceal his excitement at the prospect of facing the eventual European champions.
Once the draw was set, this sense only grew. It’s not so much that the Sounders were overlooking Al Ahly — they acknowledged the Egyptians were a very formidable opponent — but that getting the opportunity to play Real Madrid almost felt like a bigger prize than even winning the tournament.
If you were left with an empty feeling following the Sounders’ 1-0 loss to Al Ahly in Saturday’s quarterfinal, I suspect the buildup is a big reason why.
For all the time and attention we all gave the Club World Cup, in the end, it was just a single game. I suspect it was an amazing once-in-a-lifetime experience for both players and fans who attended, but for most of us I think it fell flat. We bought in, at least in part, because we wanted to see the Sounders play a “real competition” against Real Madrid and … we didn’t.
Held to a more reasonable standard, however, I think the Sounders’ performance was at least a little more encouraging. Keeping in mind that this was a team barely halfway through their preseason and facing an opponent who is in literal midseason form, the Sounders more than held their own. At times, especially in the first half, they were dominating play if not necessarily creating quality scoring chances; and considering Al Ahly has only given up seven goals in their last 22 games, that’s probably not as big of failure as it may seem. The tactical tweaks that Brian Schmetzer and his staff implemented at least show some promise and the defense looked as solid as ever, only conceding a goal on a mishit volley that deflected off a defender.
Perhaps the most encouraging development from the Sounders’ buildup to the Club World Cup was that João Paulo appears to be well on track to being fully fit for the MLS season. I’ve always felt as though his return was more important than any signing the Sounders could have plausibly made this offseason. If he can be 90% of the player he was pre-injury, I think the Sounders will be just fine.
Now, the Sounders essentially move into Phase II of preseason. There’s still nearly three more weeks until the MLS regular season opener on Feb. 26 against the Colorado Rapids. They’re expected to return to Starfire training on Thursday and then will have a preseason game against USL Championship side Louisville City on Feb. 18.
With fitness presumably a thing the Sounders shouldn’t have to worry about now, my expectation is that the last few weeks of preseason training will be spent zeroing in on tactics. I think we saw that this 4231/343 hybrid can work in possession and is solid defensively, but could still struggle a bit to create danger down the left hand side. Jordan Morris probably doesn’t need to get dozens of touches every game to be effective, but he absolutely needs to be more involved than he was against Al Ahly when he received just six passes.
What I’m hearing
The position battle most worthy of watching over the next few weeks is at centerback between Jackson Ragen and Xavier Arreaga. Ragen got the starting nod in the Club World Cup match, which suggests he’s overtaken Arreaga on the depth chart. If that holds, I’ll be kinda shocked if Arreaga remains on the roster. He’s simply too expensive to be a bench player. The Sounders were apparently poised to trade Arreaga to Inter Miami if they had completed the signing of free agent Aaron Long. My understanding is there remains a reasonably robust trade market for the 28-year-old Ecuador international.
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Everything else you need to know
- Apple’s MLS Season Pass went live almost a week ago and I have to say I was mostly impressed. There was quite a lot of content there at launch and even though I’ve seen most of the Sounders stuff before, I did find it fun to browse sections like “The Ritual” that highlight various unique elements of each time. I suspect there’s going to be some frustrations over how Family Sharing works among people who split season-tickets, but once you’re in I think most will find it a quality product.
- If you’re interested in some of the tactical tweaks Schmetzer unveiled, I highly recommend reading my Sounder at Heart colleague Mark Kastner who broke it down well.
- We probably won’t see the actual new kit for at least another week, but between promos at Seattle Center and socks that have already been available at Target we’re getting a lot of very strong hints.
- Despite losing their first game, the Sounders still collected $1 million from FIFA just for playing in the Club World Cup. They’d have been due an at least additional $1M if they won.
- Forbes did their first MLS valuation since 2019 and pegged the Sounders at $660 million. That’s a big boost from Forbes’ previous valuation of the Sounders, but 9% less than Sportico’s 2022 valuation.
- Academy Director Steve Cooke has left the Sounders to take the Atlanta United 2 head coaching job.
- The Tacoma Defiance loaned out Homegrown Player Juan Alvarez to a Austrian third-division team and signed three more players, including the Sounders’ two draft picks.