After more than a quarter-century of existence, there aren’t as many historic firsts as there used to be around Major League Soccer. Yet one of the league’s flagship clubs will mark a big, big milestone in distant Morocco this week.
On Saturday at Ibn Batouta Stadium in Tangier, the Seattle Sounders will become the first-ever MLS team to take part in the FIFA Club World Cup when they meet the winners of Wednesday’s first-round CWC match between Egyptian side Al Ahly and Auckland City of New Zealand.
Auck-who? If you’re a newcomer to the Club World Cup, here’s a quick primer on who else is there and why, starting with the Sounders’ two first possible opponents.
Egypt: CAF (Africa) runners-up
A true continental powerhouse, the Cairo club are quite familiar with the CWC, having qualified as African representatives eight times now – though this year’s path was a little more extraordinary.
The Red Eagles’ bid for an 11th African Champions League conquest was denied by Wydad in last year’s final in Casablanca, a 2-0 win for the Moroccans. But when Wydad won CWC hosting rights, it opened up a slot for Ahly to qualify as runners-up.
The 42-time Egyptian champs are managed by former Swiss international Marcel Koller, who coached several prominent clubs in Switzerland and Germany before crossing the Mediterranean in September. They’re also in midseason form, six points clear atop their domestic league standings and riding high after a 3-0 derby win over their crosstown rivals Zamalek earlier this month.
Egypt international Mohamed Sherif bagged two of those goals and is their leading scorer this season, while left back Ali Maâloul provides a constant threat with his incisive deliveries from wide areas and 2018 World Cup veteran Mohamed El Shenawy offers a safe pair of hands in goal. Al Ahly's best CWC performance came in 2006, when they fell to Brazil's Internacional in the semifinals but knocked off Mexican giants Club América to finish third.
New Zealand: OFC (Oceania) champions
It’s one of the Club World Cup’s endearing quirks that a semi-pro team from one of the more remote nations on earth has been such a mainstay of the event. While Wellington Phoenix, a fully professional outfit based in the capital city to the south, are Aotearoa’s top-tier club, they compete in Australia’s A-League and thus fall under the Asian region.
That’s left ample space for ACFC to carve out a firm foothold in New Zealand’s most populous metropolis. Whether competing in Northern League, National League or internationally in the OFC Champions League, they’ve become a consistent force in that corner of the world, and this is their record 10th CWC trip. Like Seattle, though, they’re currently in preseason and also camped in Spain before touching down in Tangiers on Saturday. Albert Riera is their head coach – not the ex-Liverpool Albert Riera, but a different Spaniard with the same name.
Though steep underdogs as usual, the Navy Blues can look to 2014 – the last time this tournament took place in Morocco – for inspiration. There, they stunned everyone, defeating African opponents in the first two rounds before falling to Argentina's San Lorenzo in extra time in the semis and snatching the bronze medal from Cruz Azul via a penalty-kick shootout win. Emiliano Tade was on that Auckland City squad, and he’s since become a club icon, topping both their all-time scoring chart as well as last season’s.
Now 34, the Argentine striker is an amazing story, having moved down under on a work-abroad visa as a young adult after calling time on first his academy footballing career, then law school back home; he worked as a restaurant dishwasher before becoming a Kiwi soccer standout. MLS watchers may wish to note that Minnesota United’s Michael Boxall played for ACFC in his schoolboy days.
Spain: UEFA (Europe) champions
Benzema, Modric, Kroos, Vinicius Jr., Tchouaméni – Los Merengues really need no introduction, right?
No one has won more LaLiga (35), UEFA Champions League (14), or CWC (four) titles than the Spanish titans. No one on earth can boast such a star-studded conglomeration of elite talent deployed in such a relentless organizational culture of winning. And considering European representatives have won the last nine straight Club World Cups and 13 out of 18 total, there's little surprise Madrid are heavily favored to hoist this piece of hardware again on Feb. 11 in Rabat.
Yes, that is who the Sounders will meet – in their second match of the year – if they defeat the winner of Al Ahly-Auckland City. With the European and South American champs granted byes into the CWC’s semifinal round, that match would take place on Feb. 8. The winner will advance to the grand final to face the survivor of the other side of the bracket, be it Flamengo, Wydad Casablanca or Al-Hilal.
As massive as RMCF are, they’ll be dashing off to Morocco in the midst of a very congested post-World Cup calendar packed with league and Copa del Rey fixtures as well as a looming Champions League knockout tie with Liverpool.
Brazil: CONMEBOL (South America) champions
CWC history shows that the contenders from UEFA and CONMEBOL usually meet in the final. So if Seattle can defy the odds and win their first two matches, the reigning Copa Libertadores holders are their most likely adversary.
Flamengo too are in the early stages of a new season, one that’s begun in somewhat contentious circumstances. Portuguese coach Vitor Pereira replaced Dorival Jr. at the helm a few weeks ago despite the latter leading the Rubro-Negro (Red-and-Black) to both Copa Libs and Copa do Brasil glory last year, while also elevating young talent for the premium European market to shop, as is always a priority in Brazil.
Pereira’s European experience was specifically cited as a key factor in obtaining his services ahead of the CWC. And with veterans Arturo Vidal, David Luiz and Felipe Luis as well as attackers like Everton and Giorgian de Arrascaeta highlighting one of the most expensively-assembled rosters in the Western Hemisphere, the Rio de Janeiro powerhouse believe they have the horses to end Europe’s dominance and restore CONMEBOL bragging rights
Saudi Arabia: AFC (Asia) champions
Cristiano Ronaldo’s ludicrously lucrative move to their crosstown rivals Al Nassr FC has drawn unprecedented global attention to the Saudi league lately.
Al Hilal supporters can justifiably boast of keeping CR7 & Co. in the shade where it counts, however, given their longstanding dominance at both domestic and continental levels (they finished fourth at the 2019 and 2021 CWCs). And now reports claim that Al Hilal want to extend that by luring Lionel Messi to the desert when his run at Paris Saint-Germain is done, which tells you a bit about the scale of their financial muscle.
In the meantime, Al-Za'eem (“The Leaders”) take plenty of quality to Morocco. The four-time AFC Champions League winners are home to about a dozen members of Saudi Arabia's impressive World Cup squad as well as imports like Odion Ighalo and Gustavo Cuellar.
Technically speaking, the Riyadh side was nominated for this CWC by the AFC as the 2021 ACL winner rather than qualifying, because the 2022 edition of Asia’s top club competition has not yet been completed.
Morocco: CAF (Africa) champions, CWC hosts
One of the heavyweights of Morocco’s biggest city, Wydad AC are both the reigning champs and historically most-decorated club of Botola Pro, their nation’s top flight, and have won five of the last eight league titles.
Their hard-fought win over Al Ahly in last year’s African Champions League final, their third such continental triumph all-time, earned them a berth in this tournament, and FIFA’s subsequent choice to grant them hosting rights opened up another slot for CAF, duly filled by Al Ahly.
Impressively, Wydad conceded just seven goals in 11 Champions League matches, while homegrown talents Zouhair El Moutaraji and Yahya Jabrane provided an attacking punch with five and four goals in the tournament, respectively. Notably, Walid Regragui coached “The Red Castle” before taking over Morocco’s national team and leading them on their Cinderella run at last year’s World Cup.
While ‘dark horse’ is probably too strong a word to apply here, host clubs have made waves in CWC before, especially when their faithful provide strong home support. Given Wydad’s historical significance as a living symbol of the Moroccan independence movement under French colonial role – the name itself means “love” or “unity” in Arabic – that might just be attainable.
USA: Concacaf (North America) champions
This North African adventure is both the long-awaited, richly-anticipated fruit of Seattle’s 2022 Concacaf Champions League title run, and a deeply daunting challenge under a global spotlight barely a month into their preseason.
The Rave Green are currently in southern Spain preparing for Saturday’s opener, with one day of two split-squad scrimmages in Marbella giving them their only competitive test against outside opposition beforehand. To further complicate the tasks in front of head coach Brian Schmetzer and his staff, they won’t know who they’re playing until less than 72 hours before that first game.
“Al Ahly has started off their season very well; they have a very accomplished coach. So we are checking all the boxes. We are trying to watch as much film [as possible] on both of our opponents, and then when we know the outcome of who we're going to play, then we'll really narrow the focus and try and figure out any sorts of strengths and weaknesses that we have to deal with,” Schmetzer told reporters last week.
“Al Ahly certainly has talented players. I mean, look, the Auckland [City] group might not be as strong, but they certainly have a strong mentality. We've talked to a couple of people about that group. So they're resilient, they're coming in with no pressure because they're the underdogs. So either team is going to be a challenge. And for us, what we want to do is yes, play up to our level, play up to our ability, and then we'll see how the games go.”