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How does the Club World Cup work?

The draw is now set.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

The Seattle Sounders learned their Club World Cup fate on Friday when the full draw was announced. Their first match will be against the winner of the opening match between Egypt’s Al Ahly and New Zealand’s Auckland City. If the Sounders win that match, they’ll play a semifinal against Real Madrid. All the matches with be played in Tangier and Rabat, Morocco between Feb. 1-11.

This is all rather new for us, so we imagine you have a lot of questions. Let’s go!

Can you start off by just explaining what the Club World Cup is?

The simplest way to explain it is a small tournament among the winners of the various champions leagues. Here’s a list of the qualified teams:

  • Africa: Wydad Casablanca (Morocco), Al Ahly (Egypt)
  • Asia*: Al-Hilal (Saudi Arabia)
  • Concacaf: Sounders (United States)
  • Europe: Real Madrid (Spain)
  • South America: Flamengo (Brazil)
  • Oceania: Auckland City (New Zealand)

*One quick note about Al-Hilal, they were selected by the Asian federation courtesy of being the defending champs from 2021 since they didn’t actually complete their champions league in time.

That’s only six federations but seven teams. How did the seventh team get selected?

The seventh team is traditionally a representative from the host nation. But when the host nation is already represented by one of the teams who qualified — in this case Wydad — they give that spot to the runner-up in that federation’s champions league. In this case, that’s Egypt’s Al Ahly.

Remind me how the Sounders qualified...

They won the Concacaf Champions League in May, beating Liga MX’s Pumas UNAM 5-2 over two legs. They had to beat three other teams to get to the final and qualified for CCL by virtue of finishing with the third-best record during the 2021 MLS regular season. Normally, that wouldn’t be good enough to get in, but since there was no U.S. Open Cup winner an extra MLS team qualified through the regular-season table.

How did they decide who plays in that opening match?

That match has always been contested between whoever qualifies through hosting and the Oceania team, presumably because they are the smallest federation and their teams aren’t even fully professional.

That seems to bode well for the Sounders. Did they catch a break with the draw?

In a sense, yes. On paper at least, the Sounders get their ideal matchup in the quarterfinals. Real Madrid is easily the most talented team in the tournament, but that’s also the opponent the Sounders have seemingly been most excited about playing.

What do we know about the Sounders’ potential opponents?

Auckland City is a semi-pro team which means most of these players are not playing soccer as their full-time job. That said, they’re a pretty good semi-pro team as those things go, with 21 domestic titles and 10 OFC Champions League trophies. This is now their 11th trip to the Club World Cup and they actually finished as high as third in 2014. There are three players who have previous Club World Cup experience, which includes centerback Angel Berlanga, who played for the squad that took third place.

Al Ahly will definitely be the favorites to advance, though, and would be a handful for the Sounders. They are the most decorated club in the world, with well over 100 trophies in their 115-year history. Among those trophies are 42 Egyptian Premier League titles and 10 more for CAF Champions League. They are currently leading their domestic league and are undefeated through 13 matches. They have 15 national team players and Transfermarkt gives them a collective value of about $30 million. Don’t be surprised if they have a strong contingent of fans, too.

If the Sounders win their first game, they play Real Madrid? Like THE Real Madrid?

Yep. I don’t know if Real Madrid will be playing all their stars early in the tournament, but their roster is collectively worth nearly $1 billion, according to Transfermarkt. They only have four players on their roster valued at less than the Sounders’ most expensive player. Put another way, they will be heavily favored against the Sounders no matter what their lineup looks like.

What happens if the Sounders lose their first game?

They go home. Unlike most of the previous tournaments, there is no fifth-place match.

How have MLS teams done in previous tournaments?

The Sounders will make history by simply playing a match, as no MLS team has ever competed in the Club World Cup. The only other MLS team to qualify was the LA Galaxy in 2000, but that year’s Club World Cup was canceled. If the Sounders win their first game, they’d also become the first MLS team to compete against a European club in an officially sanctioned tournament.

OK, how have Concacaf teams done in previous tournaments?

The best-ever performance by a Concacaf team was when Tigres UANL were runners-up in 2020, falling to Bayern Munich in the final. Four other times a Concacaf team has finished third. In 11 of 18 previous tournaments, the Concacaf team has at least won its first match.

When and where are these matches being played?

The Sounders’ first match will be on Feb. 4 in Tangier while a potential second game would be on Feb. 8 in Rabat. The third-place match and the final will both be played in Rabat on Feb. 11.

What are those cities like?

I don’t want to pretend as if I’m an expert on Morocco, but people who have been there tell me those are the two most tourist-friendly cities. Yes, Casablanca is the most famous city and where business and cruise ships go, but the cultural stuff is mostly in Rabat (capital) and Tangier (closest to Spain).

Any Sounders fans planning to go?

ECS is organizing a group. I’d suggest reaching out to their travel account on Twitter or getting in touch with them through Facebook. They should be able to help you with tickets, too.

How expensive are flights?

Again, not an expert but based on my limited research it looks like it will cost at least $1,000 roundtrip to go from Seattle to anywhere in Morocco. If you have a more flexible travel schedule, you can fly into Spain for about $600 and then get from Spain to Morocco for as cheap as $50 roundtrip.

Will the matches be televised?

Fox Sports apparently has the rights, but have not yet announced which of their channels will air the matches.

Is there a full schedule?


How much money is on the line?

The payout for this year’s tournament has not yet been announced, but the 2022 tournament had a purse of $16.5 million. If the prize pool remains the same, the Sounders would likely receive at least $1.25 million just for playing and would get at least $2 million if they win their first game.

Can that be converted into GAM (aka MLS funny money)?

Not as far as I can tell.

Let’s just say the Sounders win. Does that mean everyone will agree they’re the best team in the world?

I would definitely recommend to any Sounders fan to at least use this to settle any bar dispute, but you should do so with the understanding that you’re going to receive A LOT of pushback. Most people, rightfully, view this as a trumped up exhibition, but that shouldn’t stop us from making the most of it.

Is it a big deal though?

It’s always in the eye of the beholder and the Sounders have been building this up for years, talking about CCL as a path toward playing some of the biggest teams in the world in actual competition. To their credit, they’ve not shied away from that. The players, coaches and front office all seem genuinely excited about the chance to measure themselves against some of the most successful clubs in history. That some fans may downplay the importance shouldn’t really matter. Enjoy this! We’re making history.

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