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Sounders know they’ll have hands full with Al Ahly

Al Ahly comes into this match on a 22-game unbeaten run across all competitions.

Lindsey Wasson / Sounders FC Communications

In the world of North American soccer, the Seattle Sounders are about as decorated as anyone. Only two MLS teams have more than their eight trophies, and if you add in their four A-League and USL championships, their 12 titles are tied for the most among United States-based professional teams.

Yet their resume looks rather slim in comparison to their opponent in the Club World Cup quarterfinals on Saturday.

No top-flight professional club in the world has won more trophies than Al Ahly. The Egyptian Premier League team has won its domestic title 42 times, the Egypt Cup 37 times and the Egyptian Super Cup 12 times. They also have 24 continental championships, including a record 10 CAF Champions League titles. This is the eighth time they’ve played in the Club World Cup — second most all-time — and they’ve finished as high as third three times, including in each of the last two tournaments.

After watching Al Ahly easily handle New Zealand’s Auckland City, 3-0, while sometimes looking almost uninterested, the Sounders are well aware that they will have their hands full. The winner of Saturday’s game will get a chance to take the field against Real Madrid

“We definitely don’t want to look past Al Ahly,” Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei said earlier this week. “They’re experienced in this tournament. This is our first time, for them this is charted territory. We have to give them the utmost respect.”

On paper, the Sounders should match up reasonably well with Al Ahly. According to Transfermarkt’s valuations, the Sounders’ roster is worth about $20 million more than Al Ahly’s. Even if the Sounders are missing a key player or two from their starting lineup, they will still boast an impressive group that has experience navigating everything from Concacaf Champions League to the MLS Cup Playoffs to World Cup qualifying. The betting odds also have it pretty close to a toss-up.

But that may also be understating Al Ahly’s advantages. Not only do the Egyptian giants have a roster stocked with Club World Cup veterans, but unlike the Sounders they are also in midseason form.

While the Sounders have not played a competitive match since their 2022 MLS regular season ended nearly four months ago and have played the equivalent of about 1.5 preseason games, Al Ahly has been playing about two matches a week since December. Al Ahly has also been winning a lot, with their last loss in any competition coming all the way back on Aug. 26, 2022; they’ve gone 16-0-6 across all competitions since. Al Ahly have outscored their opponents 43-7 in that time, and in January alone, Al Ahly went 6-0-1 and outscored opponents 15-1.

“It’s been a funky schedule to start off,” Sounders right back Alex Roldan said of the Sounders preseason. “We’re not using it as an excuse. Sometimes you just need to be thrown into the fire to see what you’re made of.”

Given the rust and reality that they’re still in preseason, the Sounders know they can’t afford to simply stand toe-to-toe and trade punches with Al Ahly for 90 minutes. Even more than normal, they’ll need to avoid mistakes and take the chances they get. Roldan noted that Auckland City found some joy playing through Al Ahly’s lines and that they could be vulnerable to counter-attacks.

“Finding your moments is a big part of how your fitness plays out,” Roldan said. “We have sometimes been our own worst enemy. We need to find the right moments to slow the game down, but also aren’t trying to play a full 90 minutes with aggression.”

In a weird way, it’s at least theoretically possible that Al Ahly’s recent dominance could work to the Sounders’ favor. Al Ahly has not faced an opponent with the type of attacking talent of the Sounders and they’ve not had to play from behind at all since December.

“The level of that league might give them games where they have a lot of the ball, but their defending is very good, too,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer noted, identifying midfielder Aliou Dieng as one particularly good player. “But they’re bound to lose at some point. We’ll see if we can be the team that knocks them off.”

As soon as the draw was revealed, the specter of Real Madrid loomed so strongly that it has almost completely overshadowed this game. But as much as the Sounders may see simply taking the field against Real Madrid as the prize of this tournament, they’re cognizant that Al Ahly likely feels the same way.

In Al Ahly’s seven previous trips to the Club World Cup, they’ve only faced a UEFA team once — a 2-0 loss to Bayern Munich in 2020.

“I don’t think any of our players are even thinking about Real Madrid,” Schmetzer insisted. “We’ve been messaging that we’re solely focused on a very good Al Ahly team.

“Our players are just excited to be in this competition, in this tournament. The people have treated us very well, FIFA has treated us very well, the reception we’ve received is a big, big occasion. They don’t need much more in terms of influence. They’re just living in this moment and are excited.”

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