Seattle Sounders carrying MLS banner at Club World Cup, eye dream clash vs. Real Madrid
By Cesar Hernandez,2023-02-03
Long before helping the Seattle Sounders win the 2022 CONCACAF Champions League and qualifying for the current Club World Cup , forward Jordan Morris was just another local kid from the Emerald City, rooting for his favorite players.
"I remember even before I was on the [Seattle] team and watching [CONCACAF] Champions League games, I wanted them to win the tournament and be the first MLS team to do it," the 28-year-old told ESPN.
Morris and the rest of the Sounders squad have accomplished at least part of that childhood aspiration, snapping a streak of 13 consecutive CCL titles for Liga MX teams. With a 5-2 aggregate victory at Lumen Field over Pumas UNAM in last May's final, Seattle made history as the first-ever Major League Soccer side to win the North American competition in its modern era.
On Saturday, that fairy tale will continue, and it could lead to a coveted clash against Real Madrid .
The Club World Cup, held this year in Morocco, brings together champions from each continent for a knockout-round tournament. The Sounders will debut against Egypt's Al-Ahly at Ibn Batouta Stadium in Tangier. The winner then faces Madrid in the semifinal round. On the other side of the bracket, African champions Wydad Casablanca tackle Saudi Arabia's Al-Hilal , who will then meet Brazilian outfit Flamengo .
Granted, with the MLS regular season not kicking off for another three weeks, the Sounders will playing their first competitive matches of the year.
"It's definitely been more challenging in terms of building fitness and building sharpness within the group," said Morris, who has spent a shortened four-week preseason with his teammates in the Spanish town of Marbella. "You gotta get up to fitness, speed and sharpness a lot quicker."
While other MLS sides are waiting to begin the regular season on Feb. 25, the Sounders have needed to expedite their efforts. They've done trainings in which players have been pushed more than normal, taken part in second sessions when needed, and played in two friendlies within a 24-hour time frame last Saturday -- a 0-0 draw with Austria's Wolfsberger AC and a 3-2 loss to Sweden's Hammarby That said, there were few complaints about their beachside location.
"Well, Marbella versus Tucson," joked head coach Brian Schmetzer about the difference in this year's preseason camp. "Not to put Tucson, Arizona, down, we've had some good days there.
"It just lends a little bit more flavor, a little bit more pizzazz, a little bit more team bonding when you're in a foreign country, it just feels different. The players are energized."
Veteran goalkeeper Stefan Frei was also content with his latest surroundings.
"The weather has been good, the pitches have been fantastic, the training grounds are really close to our hotel. So it makes everything very, very convenient," Frei said.
Whether the camp location was selected simply for its proximity to Morocco or for the idyllic nature of the Marbella area, it seems like the right move for Seattle considering the immediate buildup and expectations being placed on them as the first MLS side in the Club World Cup.
No longer watching from afar after Liga MX represented the CONCACAF region in every previous edition of the tournament, the Sounders will finally have a chance to boast what one of MLS' top teams can achieve on a global stage. Looking ahead, Schmetzer was open about this weight on the shoulders of his team.
"We don't want to spend all this time and travel, and all that, to come to Morocco and not play very well, not be competitive. There is that little added bit of pressure individually and collectively, for sure," he said.
With that pressure, there's also an immense amount of pride for the players being part of a changing soccer landscape in America. With the 2022 World Cup over, there's now a shifting focus toward the United States, which will co-host the 2026 World Cup with Mexico and Canada. In the early days of a new cycle, success at the Club World Cup could help kickstart even more growing interest for the sport in the country.
"I think it continues to add to the excitement and add to the growth of soccer in this country," Morris said, who was part of the USMNT's World Cup squad in Qatar. "To be the first MLS team to play in this tournament, to be able to represent Seattle, represent MLS, is something that is a big honor. ... It's a once in a lifetime thing."
A highly significant and invaluable moment would also await them in the semifinals if they get that immediate win against Al-Ahly.
Although the players and coach all stressed the idea of taking things game by game -- Schmetzer himself said that he has been messaging his roster "that we'll never get there unless we beat our first opponent" -- there's an undeniable thrill for all involved to possibly facing the 14-time UEFA Champions League winners.
"I've been lucky enough to play against Real Madrid in friendlies, once with Toronto FC , once in an MLS All-Star Game, and that's all nice and dandy, but to get to actually play in a meaningful competition in a meaningful game, that's another level," Frei said.
No longer a kid watching CCL games and hoping for Seattle to succeed, Morris knew that he and his teammates could possibly face a top European side at the Club World Cup. "It was a cool experience, but the sentiment is that we have to get there first. We have to focus on this first game," Morris said.
In a competition as short and compressed as the Club World Cup, the measures of success and disappointment have varied wildly from CONCACAF's previous Liga MX entrants, and often defined by just 90 minutes of play.
In 2018, there was a sense of failure after Chivas arguably outplayed Japanese side Kashima Antlers before losing 3-2 in the initial round. In 2019, there was widespread praise for a Monterrey side that narrowly won their first game and then put up a fight in a narrow 2-1 loss to Liverpool in the semis. Similar accolades were given to Tigres in the 2020 edition for two close victories and then losing 1-0 to Bayern Munich in the final.
Managing expectations and ambitions will be key, but then again, what has helped the Sounders reach the level that they're currently at is through those high expectations that they put on themselves.
"Our mantra has always been that we take every game, whether it's a training game, anything, we want to win. We're competitive in that way," Schmetzer said.
"All those experiences that we've had -- winning some MLS Cups, winning [U.S.] Open Cups, winning the CCL championship -- certainly will help us in that regard. The guys are super focused, they're prepared. That's the normal course of business for this franchise."
Seattle has been touted as one of the league's model clubs since joining MLS in 2007 as an expansion franchise. The team has won two MLS Cup titles and four U.S. Open Cup wins while continuing to be among the top in attendance figures.
"Our mentality is always to win trophies. We've been a club that prides ourself on that, and this is a new opportunity, a new challenge, but again, it goes back to taking it game by game," the forward said.
If Liga MX clubs have been close before, if teams from Japan, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Ecuador and Democratic Republic of the Congo have all had an opportunity in previous finals, then why not Seattle?
As showcased in the CCL last year, Frei continues to have the reflexes to single-handedly change the outcomes of matches, attacking midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro was capable of providing crucial goals and assists, and up top, there are few players in CONCACAF club soccer that have been as clutch in big game moments as Peruvian striker Raul Ruidiaz . In support, others like Morris and Cristian Roldan were brilliant. Also, if midfielder Joao Paulo is back to full fitness this week, that'll provide an extra boost as well.
Players like these have bought into not only striving for success with the Sounders, but also being a part of what could be a storied history.
"When you go through a Bayern Munich or an AC Milan trophy room, you see the black-and-white picture of the team that won their trophies for the very first time," Frei said.
"We've done that in 2016 [with an MLS Cup], we've done that with winning CONCACAF Champions League, and now we get to represent our community, our club, Seattle as a city, our families and also the league."
Even if they don't win it all, even if they lose that first match, there could be another young fan watching from home, wishing to one day see them lift that title.
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