There was a stretch not too long ago when the MLS playoffs were a time of torture in Seattle. For seven straight years and despite consistent regular season quality, the Sounders failed to reach the MLS Cup final, falling to lower-seeded sides on three occasions and advancing past the quarterfinals only twice.
Then in 2016, fueled in part by a miracle extra-time save by Stefan Frei in an upset win over Toronto FC, the Sounders eventually broke through. Since then, they’ve claimed a second MLS title and been back to the final three more times.
“Sometimes with tournaments, you want to have a bit of experience and then you kind of want to find your way into it,” the veteran goalkeeper said this week.
It can take time to get accustomed to new terrain and higher altitudes, and there are so many examples of teams and players who’ve had to find their footing and catch their breath before making progress.
More than 40 African entrants across five decades left the World Cup without playing for a chance at a medal before Morocco became the first to make the semis a couple months ago. We’ve seen Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain, non-traditional powers overloaded with world-class talent, unravel time and again inside the Champions League crucible. Seattle’s winding path to a domestic crown felt almost painless compared to MLS’s Concacaf agony. It took 20 years and repeated (and often humiliating) setbacks before an American or Canadian club won a home-and-away race for the continental title. And it’s surely no accident that the Sounders, who contested more Concacaf Champions League matches than any compatriot, were the ones that finally solved the puzzle last spring.
Even the Mexican teams that dominated Concacaf then struggled at the next level, often losing to much more modest opposition—at least in terms of player valuation—at the FIFA Club World Cup. Despite their relative wealth compared to teams outside Europe, Liga MX sides won bronze just once in their first dozen CWC forays. They then medaled in three of four tournaments, culminating with Tigres UANL’s run to the final against Bayern Munich in early 2021.
This is the kind of journey the Sounders will begin Saturday in Tangier, Morocco, at the summit of the club game and, simultaneously, toward the bottom. Seattle is a veteran side and according to Transfermarkt, its roster is worth nearly twice that of Egypt’s Al Ahly, its quarterfinal opponent. But history suggests those valuations mean little at the Club World Cup, because there’s no asset quite like experience. The Cairo-based power, a 10-time African champion, is playing in its eighth Club World Cup. Al Ahly won bronze in each of the last two editions and defeated Monterrey, 3–1, in last year’s quarterfinals. The Sounders are starting at square one.
The Egyptians took silver in the 2022 African Champions League but qualified for the Club World Cup as “host” because Morocco’s Wydad Casablanca won the continental title. Al Ahly then eased past Oceania champ Auckland City, 3–0, in Wednesday’s first round and will present a formidable challenge to Seattle on Saturday in Tangier.
Former GM Garth Lagerwey, who’s now with Atlanta United, said the Sounders were playing for “immortality” in last May’s CCL final against UNAM Pumas. And so immortality was secured. Seattle will forever be the first MLS team to win it. Now, it’s playing for opportunity. A win Saturday and an appearance in next week’s semifinal will open eyes around the globe, and it would come against the biggest fish of them all, seven-time world champion Real Madrid.
The opportunity is massive, but so is the test.
“This is our first time, for an MLS side, to be part of this. For them, this is charted territory. So we know we have to give them the utmost respect,” Frei said Wednesday at the Sounders training camp in Spain.
“In Concacaf already you [have to earn] that experience of when you’re new to it: the different kind of opponent that plays completely different, travel to places like Nicaragua, different infrastructure, different stadiums, different weather. So all those things, when you’ve never experienced those, it’s very very difficult to be successful,” he added.
The Club World Cup, “is no less a challenge in that regard,” Frei continued. “I feel like last year with us in Concacaf we had O.K. results in the beginning and we grew as the tournament went on. In a [one-game] knockout phase right away like this, there’s no room for error. We have to be able to bring a result onto the table right away for us to move on and go to the next round. We’ve tried to work hard in preseason to make sure we’re ready, but it will be a challenge nonetheless.”
The build-up hasn’t exactly been ideal for the biggest game in Sounders history and, arguably, the most significant ever played by an American club soccer team. A glut of injuries last year, some uncharacteristically sloppy play and an understandable post-CCL hangover resulted in Seattle missing the MLS playoffs for the first time. As a result, its most recent competitive match was almost four months ago. A few weeks of training and intra-squad play back home were followed by a trip to Spain, where coach Brian Schmetzer split his roster and scrimmaged Austria’s Wolfsberger and Sweden’s Hammarby last weekend. That’s the sum total of Seattle’s preparation.
Meanwhile, Al Ahly is midway through its season and has been competing every few days. It leads the Egyptian Premier League by six points.
“It's been a hard preseason in some sense, because it's short and it's compressed. But at the end of the day, it's been one of our easier preseasons because the players understand the opportunity that they have,” Schmetzer said in Spain. “They came back from their offseason workouts in better shape. They’ve really done a great job of taking this tournament very seriously. So our job as coaches for preseason has just been about making sure we we get the numbers right for training, the physical prep. I think mentally they’re fully prepared to try and go and win the first game.”
Midfielder Cristian Roldan, who suffered a groin injury over the summer but recovered in time to make the U.S. World Cup team, said the Sounders, although lacking in Club World Cup pedigree, have established chemistry that may help see them through.
“I talk about continuity all the time and I think the Sounders do an extremely good job of having that each and every year. The backbone, the spine of our team, has been the same for quite some time,” he said. “It really helps us gel together and helps us compete in these types of tournaments.”
Seattle had a quiet offseason. There were no significant departures. The club acquired striker Héber from New York City FC. The Brazilian tallied 10 goals last year. And the Sounders will welcome back midfield anchor João Paulo, who tore his ACL in that CCL triumph against Pumas. He saw 45 minutes of action against Hammarby.
“He makes everybody better just by his choice of passing, how he passes the ball, where he passes the ball, some of those little real small nuances to our sport,” Schmetzer said of João Paulo. “So we are really pleased that he's coming along well.”
That’s the sort of savvy Seattle will have to count on in Tangier.
“I love smart soccer players. So what I always message to the group is … you guys can watch as much film, it's never going to be the same until you're actually on the grass,” Schmetzer added. “You will not know exactly how they are, what they are, who they are, how they play. You just have to feel that. That’s one of the great things about our sport. And so we will have to rely on our grit, our determination, but we will have to play smart because those teams have had a head start on us. And so we will have to conserve energy whenever possible. We’ll have to put our foot on the gas when the opportunities present themselves.”
Conserve energy, play smart, and don’t look ahead. There’s never been anything in American soccer like a potential Club World Cup semifinal against Real Madrid. It’s the most famous name in soccer, and those 90 minutes would be a wonderful experience even if they were to turn ugly. Frei said he’d been “fortunate” during his career just to face Los Blancos in a couple friendlies. Everyone understands what Madrid means. But don’t be fooled by Al Ahly’s lack of global cachet. It’s a juggernaut, accustomed to pressure and in mid-season form, that’s climbed this mountain many times before.
“It's human nature. I don't mind the question. The messaging to the team is ‘You're never going to play against Real Madrid unless you win your first game,’” Schmetzer said when asked about the potential of facing the Spanish titans.
Madrid awaits the Seattle-Al Ahly survivor, while Wydad faces Asian champion Al Hilal of Saudi Arabia in Saturday’s other quarterfinal. The winner of that game will play Copa Libertadores winner Flamengo, Brazil’s most popular team, in the final four. Seattle is the only Club World Cup debutant.
It was strange last season to see the Sounders rejoice in their historic continental achievement, then have to travel to Frisco, Texas and lose to FC Dallas three days later. Typically, triumphs like that are followed by parties, parades, rest and reflection. It’s equally counterintuitive that a tournament of the Club World Cup’s magnitude, and a game like Saturday’s quarterfinal, comes at such an awkward time for a team already hindered by a lack of experience at this level. Seattle won’t arrive in Tangier in good form, like most teams do at the quarterfinal stage of something. It’ll arrive in no form at all.
But the Sounders have earned this opportunity. They’ve been MLS’s most consistent winners and are its most appropriate representative. So they’ll summon what they can and take their best shot.
“It’s important to acknowledge that it’s all our first time, and that we all have to enjoy it together,” Roldan said. “We have guys that have played in big games and for us, it’s treating it like it’s another big game, right? And so thats where our experience comes in. But at the same time, I think that freshness, that idea this is brand new to everyone, is really exciting and will be motivating for our team. That’s kind of the way we’re all looking at it.”