This Wednesday, Sounders FC enter the preliminary stages of the Champions League for the first time in their history, facing AD Isidro Metapán from El Salvador at Qwest Field.
Now, if your previous experience with soccer involves following clubs in Europe, you might be a bit confused by the name Champions League. Most often, it is used to refer to the UEFA tournament of European clubs competing for a European title. Obviously the Sounders, being located in Seattle, are part of entirely different tournament, known as the CONCACAF Champions League, involving clubs from North America, Central America and the Caribbean.
And even if your experience with soccer revolves primarily around the MLS and the U.S., you still might not be sure exactly what the CCL involves. So let's take it from the top, shall we?
The CCL is composed of 24 teams: nine from North America (four from the U.S., four from Mexico, one from Canada), 12 from Central America (two clubs from Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Panama, one from Belize and Nicaragua), and three from the Caribbean. Eight of those teams (two from the US, two from Mexico, and one from Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras and Panama) are seeded into the qualifying round, with the other 16 participating in the preliminary round. However, if stadiums fail to meet CONCACAF standards, they cannot participate in the tournament. This year, the clubs from Belize and Nicaragua (including my club Real Estelí, sadly enough) were forced to drop out, and clubs from Honduras and Panama took their places.
Each country determines the manner in which their squads qualify, excepting the Caribbean, whose squads enter the CFU Club Champions Cup, with the top three finishers moving on to the preliminary round of the CCL. In the United States, the Open Cup winners and the runners up in the MLS Cup qualify for the preliminary rounds, while the regular season (Supporters' Shield) winners and the MLS Cup winners are automatically entered in the group stage.
Which brings us back to the Sounders. Seattle earned its spot in the preliminary round by clinching the US Open Cup last September. They will face Metapán, who won the Clausura title last season-the Primera División has two seasons, Apertura and Clausura, with the winners of each going on to the preliminary round. The preliminary rounds are two-legged, meaning each club plays at home and away. The team that scores the most aggregate goals will advance to the qualifying round. Should the teams be even on goals scored, the team with the most away goals will go through. If this is again even, an overtime period is played after the second leg. If no further goals are scored, the clubs will participate in a penalty shootout.
Seattle plays Metapán at home on Wednesday night before traveling to El Salvador next week for the away leg. Should they win (which is possible, but keep in mind that the Sounders play three matches in eight days) Seattle advances to the group stage, where they will be one of four teams in Group C. Monterrey, from Mexico, and Saprissa, from Costa Rica, are the clubs that were seeded into the group. The fourth member will be the winner of the preliminary matchup between Tauro (Panama) and Marathon (Honduras).
If the Sounders advance to the group stage, they would play each team twice, again home and away. The top two teams in each group, based on total points, advance to the champions round. Should points be even, the first tiebreaker is goal difference, then goals scored away (between teams concerned). If this doesn't work, it is goal difference and goals away among all teams in the group. Eventually, if there is still somehow a tie, lots are drawn. I rather hope it comes to this because it seems it would be amusing.
Finally, if Seattle is one of the top two teams in its group, they will advance to the champions round. The club will have to wait until February for this round (which is the offseason, let's remember) and obviously we have no idea who the team will be facing. But in order to win, the Sounders must emerge triumphant from a quarterfinal, a semifinal, and the final (all two-legged, same tiebreaker rules as the preliminary round). The final round is not held until April, so it is quite conceivable that the team that plays in April 2011 will look entirely different from the team that qualified in September 2009 for the Champions League.
I'm not one to make predictions, so if you're interested in examining the Sounders' chances in the CCL, take a look at Dave Clark's article on Sounder at Heart. What I will say is this: Seattle Sounders are still involved in the US Open Cup. They are still (technically) eligible for a play-off position in the MLS Cup. In the ten days between July 25 and Aug. 3, the Sounders will play four matches and travel 3,500 miles. If the club advances to the CCL group stage, they will potentially play 11 matches in six weeks. This is a team still plagued by injuries to significant players, including Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, Brad Evans and Mike Fucito. It is a club carrying a starting midfielder whose future remains uncertain. Should Seattle want to make an impact in more than one of these competitions, the club must bring in at least one significant player. I'm all for a defensive pickup, but we need a midfielder as well. Sounders fans should cross their fingers that the team adds depth and adds it quickly, or the club might end this season without trophies and without a playoff spot.