It was only a couple weeks before the opening of Seattle Sounders training camp that FIFA got around to officially confirming that the Club World Cup would really happen. That left the Sounders little time to throw together a proper preseason, one that ultimately included a trip to Spain for most of the two weeks before their first match in Morocco.
One thing it didn’t include much of, though, was proper preseason matches. During their four-week preseason ahead of the Feb. 4 Club World Cup opener against the winner of Auckland City-Al Ahly, the Sounders will only have one day’s worth of preseason matches against other teams. That day will include games against two different teams — Austria’s Wolfsberger and Sweden’s Hammarby — but players will likely only feature in one or the other. The only other game action the Sounders will get before a literal must-win match in the Club World Cup is intrasquad scrimmages.
The Sounders realize that’s probably not an ideal run-up, but they are choosing to take a positive outlook. Cristian Roldan noted that in some ways those intrasquad matches can be even tougher than facing a different opponent, since everyone knows what the other team is trying to do.
“It’s been great to challenge ourselves and compete against each other,” Roldan said, noting that the biggest challenge remains making sure players are fit. “One competitive game will be fine for us as long as we can play 90 minutes. In a perfect world, I’d love to be in the middle of the season, but the reality is we had four weeks and we’re playing the cards we’re dealt.
“Finding the sharpness will be tough,” he added. “Guys coming off the bench are going to be really important. They’re going to have be really sharp in front of goal. But we’ll be just fine. We have that mentality that we don’t have excuses.”
One other element potentially working in the Sounders’ favor is that there’s been very limited turnover in the roster since last year. All of the the top 14, and 17 of the top 18 players in terms of minutes played last year are still with the Sounders and Héber is the only new signing likely to play significant minutes in Morocco.
“I think the group is together,” Schmetzer said. “They know each other, we should be fine.”
Those players also have the added motivation of wanting to put last year’s poor finish behind them. Despite becoming the first MLS team to win Concacaf Champions League — which qualified them for this tournament — the Sounders missed the MLS Cup playoffs for the first time since joining the league in 2009.
Driven at least in part by that, the Sounders showed up to preseason in generally better shape than in previous years and as a result have been able to hit the ground running. By the time they arrived in Spain about a week ago, the Sounders had largely moved beyond focusing on fitness and had started to implement tactical tweaks.
“It’s been one of our easier preseasons because the players understand the opportunity they have,” Schmetzer said. “They came home from offseason workouts in better shape. They took it seriously. It’s just been about making sure the numbers are right. Mentally they are fully prepared to try to win the first game.”
Much has been made of the possibility of facing Real Madrid, but the Sounders will need to beat either Auckland City or Al Ahly to get that opportunity. Auckland City has spent the last couple of weeks in Salou, Spain, where they were able to play a couple of preseason games, including one against Barcelona’s B team. They arrived in Morocco on Friday ahead of Wednesday’s match.
Al Ahly, meanwhile, has been playing actual competitive matches, beating fellow Egyptian Premier League team National Bank, 1-0, on Wednesday to improve to 11-0-4 this season. This is their eighth trip to the Club World Cup.
“You can’t play Real Madrid unless you win your first game,” Schmetzer said. “We respect all of our opponents. If we can go through and play Real Madrid, that would be a real entertaining, exciting opportunity to measure ourselves against one of the biggest clubs in the world.”
João Paulo will “feature”
Although it’s unlikely that João Paulo will start either of the matches on Saturday, Schmetzer did confirm that the midfielder will at least “feature” in one of them. That will likely mean he will also be limited to coming off the bench in the first Club World Cup match.
Follow the preseason matches
There won’t be a stream, but the Sounders say they will offer live commentary of their preseason games on their @LiveSounders Twitter account.