COLUMBUS, OH - MAY 7: Eddie Gaven #12 of the Columbus Crew, Leo Gonzalez #12 of the Seattle Sounders and Alvaro Fernandez #15 of the Seattle Sounders battle for control of the ball on May 7, 2011 at Crew Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
The Seattle Sounders have a chance to make advancement to the next stage of the CONCACAF Champions League a formality, but a resurgent Costa Rican giant and the challenges of playing in Central America could make that a tough task.
Like a lot of teams that qualified for the CONCACAF Champions League from less prestigious leagues, CS Herediano are something of a mystery. This is their first appearance in the group stage of CCL play, as Costa Rica's spots in the tournament have most typically gone to heavyweights Saprissa and Alajuelense. And while those teams have had some success in the tournament, they've also managed to parlay their consistent domination of the Costa Rican Primera into building teams that could compete in multiple competitions and hang with some of CONCACAF's big boys. Herediano hasn't had that same opportunity - at least not yet - but that shouldn't be taken as evidence that the Sounders should be able to waltz in and take all three points.
Despite the recent domination of the league by Alajuelense and Saprissa, Herediano are still widely regarded as one of Costa Rica's greatest teams. They've had several periods golden eras in their history, the first spanning the 1920s and '30s, the most recent beginning in the late 1970s and running through the mid '80s. They also produced a pretty tremendous left back, currently plying his trade a few thousand miles north of Costa Rica. In all, Los Florenses have won 21 league titles, good enough for third in the league's history (and 15 more than fourth-placed CS La Libertad who now compete in Costa Rica's top amateur division) and appear to be returning to their former prominence. They currently sit second in the Primera behind Alajuelense, and they should be in first; in their most recent match, Herediano was leading Alajuelese 4-0 (a reverse of the scoreline for the season's earlier meeting between the two sides) when this happened:
Shortly thereafter the match was abandoned, and while Herediano will (presumably) have a chance to pick up those three points again in the future it's an unfortunate break for them seeing as how there were just 10 minutes of the 90 remaining when the game was called off. Still, whether it counts or not that's an impressive showing against a team that had only recently put together a solid performance against the LA Galaxy at the Home Depot Center, looking a real danger to threaten for a point before surrendering a late goal, eventually falling 2-0. And no matter the competition, games in Central America are always a test; it seems a fair bet to believe that Herediano are a stronger team than San Francisco and the Sounders performance in Panama is one that all involved would prefer to forget.
As with most CCL games at this stage, the Sounders aren't going to be starting a full-strength lineup. At least some of that is due to circumstances beyond their control as Erik Friberg and Brad Evans are both out due to injury. But given the team Seattle put on the field against Monterrey, a much stronger team that the Sounders were facing in a less comfortable position than the on they're in now, a mixture of youth and experience is likely to be on display. That means Pat Noonan, Nate Jaqua, and one of Zach Scott and Taylor Graham will get a start. The odds are against Mike Fucito or Fredy Montero starting; both would be quite a shock. It's possible that we'll get our first look at Josh Ford, though Kasey Keller did travel and will be the likely starter. There's a rumor that new signing Sammy Ochoa traveled with the team and will at the very least be in the 18, and at least a chance that Amadou Sanyang will get his first start.
It's another situation where aside from the players we know for certain will not start (Evans, Friberg and Osvaldo Alonso, who did not travel) there's no real way of knowing what the lineup is going to look like. Will the Sounders attempt to stick with their typical, fluid, attacking 4-2-3-1 formation they've had such success with so far this season? Will we see a more defensive, counter-attacking 4-4-2? Will Sigi opt to pull it all back and play a 4-5-1 like we saw in Mexico? It's really anyone's guess, and we won't have much of an indication until lineups are announced tonight.
But no matter how Sigi Schmid opts to try and accomplish it, the Sounders are going to be going after three points. A win in Herediano would give Seattle nine points through three games (with two games at home remaining on the schedule) and would all but sew up a spot in the knockout stage. With the finish line of the MLS regular season in sight and the final group stage game coming just a week and a half before the playoffs begin, an opportunity to rest key players would be welcome. That's a lot easier to justify if you've already booked your ticket to the next round. But it's not just Seattle's CCL standing that people will be concerned about; keep in mind, the Sounders lost on Saturday. And though it was the first time in a month and came at the hands of a very good team, there's at least a small level of concern in the back of more than a few minds. And if it's fair to claim a team composed largely of reserves beating Monterrey as proof of the team's depth and quality, it's equally fair to call a loss this evening at least a miniature trend no matter who takes the field.
As CCL games often do, this one could go either way. It's not just the teams on the field; it's the travel, the environment and the referees to a far greater extent than in MLS play. A strong performance and a win has positive implications for the rest of the Sounders domestic season as well as their future in the CCL. A poor showing and a loss makes the fixture list towards the end of the year look a little bit tighter and allows a bit of doubt about the streakiness of this team to creep back in. And without having much exposure to Herediano, there's really no way of knowing what to expect from the oppositon.
The Champions League is a blast, isn't it?