The Seattle Sounders get their 2011-12 CONCACAF Champions League season underway this evening, taking on Panamanian Champions San Francisco FC in the first leg of a home-and-home tie that will determine entry into the group stage. The group that awaits is far less imposing than last season's (despite the inclusion of reigning CCL Champions Monterrey) and though the Sounders won't be the favorites to win the group it's certainly far from an impossible task. Despite last season's struggles, anything short of advancing to the knockout stage would be a major disappointment; the Sounders are a better team in a better league position and up against less imposing competition and the club is known to place a high priority on CCL play as evidence of the team's progress.
Before Seattle can worry too much about what awaits them in the group stage, however, there's the small matter of actually getting there. SBNation's CCL guru Jason Anderson has a comprehensive look at the Sounders chances in tonight's game (as well as their group stage outlook) and his knowledge of San Francisco is, to say the least, quite impressive. If Sounders fans are looking for reasons to be optimistic, Anderson has several. Here's one:
There are promising talents like Rolando Algandona and Luis Olivardia, but it's still a raw group that Seattle should be able to get the better of by playing quick combinations and moving intelligently off the ball. In other words, the Sounders already play the style of soccer that is most likely to cause San Francisco problems.
Still, any trip to Latin America is a tough task. Of course the goal is ostensibly to win, but should the Sounders emerge with terms level-and hopefully an away goal or two-they'll be in very good shape ahead of next Wednesday's return match at CenturyLink. It will be interesting to see the tactical approach taken by Sigi Schmid's team; conventional wisdom tells you that as the visitors Seattle should play a conservative style geared towards keeping the home side off the board, and indeed that's largely the approach the Sounders took in last season's tournament, at least until their only hopes of advancing past the group stage rested on a win. That hasn't been the Sounders game as of late however, and if San Francisco's inexperience in defense is their weakest link then there might be a significant advantage to be had in going for the throat early on. Coming home with a lead and forcing San Francisco to score more than once in Seattle would be a very nice situation indeed for the Sounders.
Still, despite the assurances of those in the know that Seattle are favorites in this tie, there's a certain anxiousness that goes along with every new CONCACAF club the Sounders encounter. This teams are unknowns to the vast majority of Seattle fans and though the relative strength of leagues, past CCL performance and scouting reports are all very wonderful things it's tough to feel too comfortable until you've seen the opposition with your own eyes.
Which is really one of the things that makes this tournament so much fun. There's a great appeal in taking on massive clubs such as Monterrey of course, and the ultimate goal of winning an international competition is ultimately the driving force. But games such as these don't come along anywhere else. The Sounders face each MLS team at least twice a year, and even in US Open Cup games against lower-league sides there is a more direct knowledge of the expected level of play of the competition. But where teams such as San Francisco are concerned, there's far less to go on and to a large extent no way of knowing what to expect. It's a very rare thing in sports at this level, and the kind of thing that makes the CCL so enjoyable.