After a strong pre-season, the Seattle Sounders are set to open competitive play in 2012 on Wednesday night at CenturyLink Field. This year, they'll be forced to hit the ground running; the Sounders first opponent of the year will be Mexican Primera powerhouse Santos Laguna, and unlike most season openers there won't be too much of an opportunity to rebound from a poor showing. Seattle's MLS season won't get underway for another ten days, but they're already faced with a do-or-die proposition in early March; given the history of MLS teams playing on Mexican soil and the reputation of Santos Laguna's Estadio Corona as an incredibly difficult place for visitors to play, there's a whole lot riding on Seattle's performance in this game.
Santos Laguna is arguably the best team that the Sounders will have ever faced in competitive play. The three-time Mexican Primera Champions and 2011 Apertura runners-up currently sit 4th in the league table, three points behind current leaders Morelia. The top scoring team in Mexico so far this season with 16 goals through 9 games, Santos Laguna favor a heavily attacking style that places an emphasis on high pressure and possession, not necessarily all that different than what one would expect to see from the Sounders. The biggest difference is Santos Laguna's quality in depth relative to the Sounders; the sheer number of quality attacking players will give them a major advantage in terms of opportunities for tactical exploitation and impact substitutions late in the going. That depth is especially important considering the loss of their most dangerous striker Darwin Quintero. Were the Sounders to lose Fredy Montero, the options to replace him would be David Estrada, Sammy Ochoa or Roger Levesque; any of Santos Laguna's replacements for Quintero (most notably former US international Herculez Gomez) would start for the majority of teams in MLS.
That's one of the major obstacles the Sounders will be forced to overcome in this series. Santos Laguna's edge in terms of the starting XI is real, but far from insurmountable, and they'll be faced with some notable obstacles; their flight in Seattle is not scheduled to arrive until 24 hours prior to kickoff, and the 45-degree difference between Torreón and Seattle will most likely not be all that pleasant. Albiverdes have also had their share of difficulties playing on the road this season with their only two losses coming away from Estadio Corona, including their most recent game played outside of Torreon, a 2-1 loss to a relatively poor Chivas de Guadalajara side. It's unlikely that any combination of travel fatigue, cold weather and road woes could be a decisive factor in the game, but they certainly won't help Santos Laguna's chances.
And given the task Seattle is up against, every little bit will help. There's no reason to think the Sounders can't pick up a win in this game, but in the end that might not be enough; with the away-goals rule in play, a 3-2 win is a dramatically inferior result to a 1-0 win. That's not to suggest that the home side should abandon their favored style of play in favor of a park-the-bus approach, but given the visitors' vulnerability to the counter-attack a slightly more restrained approach may well be the correct one. When the Sounders are in possession and pushing men forward, positional awareness, solid communication and proper rotation will be key. A team as good as the Sounders should never go into their shell at home, but with so much at stake and the even more daunting return fixture just a week ahead there should be no excuses for cheap goals. If Santos Laguna come to Seattle and pick up a strong result thanks to a strong performance, there's little to do but tip your cap to a worthy opponent. If an otherwise strong Sounders performance is marred by defensive lapses (as was so often the case last season) that's a completely different story.
If the Sounders can keep a clean sheet in this game, they've got a fighting chance of advancing to the next round. Win by two goals or more and they might even be considered the favorites heading into the away leg. But a draw involving multiple goals or-perish the thought-a loss will make the semifinals an incredibly difficult task. That's not to say it would be impossible; this team has certainly surprised us before (even on Mexican soil.) But there's no sense in making things any harder than they need to be. Santos Laguna is a very good team. But the Sounders aren't too bad in their own right. If they are as well prepared for the season as their performance against Jaguares in last week's Community Shield would lead one to believe, they're capable of heading to Mexico with the upper hand. But It's going to take as strong a performance as they can muster.