Frei: Seattle Sounders have "no room for error" in Club World Cup opener

CWC_Stefan Frei

Stepping into the global spotlight in Morocco, facing inherent pressure as the first-ever Major League Soccer team to compete in a FIFA Club World, Seattle Sounders FC are embracing the opportunity earned via last year's historic Concacaf Champions League title.

If anything, focus levels have increased following Wednesday's news that Egyptian powerhouse Al Ahly await after one of Africa's two representatives at the tournament cruised past Oceanic champion Auckland City FC 3-0.

"We took on Concacaf as one of the top MLS teams and we played good football, we played against some tough teams," right back Alex Roldan told reporters after their Second Round foe was locked in. "So, we definitely earned our spot to be here and I think moving forward we're looking at this competition to go in there and play as good as we can to move onto the next round."

If Seattle win at Grand Stade de Tanger in Tangier (12 pm ET | FS2, FOX Deportes), a Semifinal clash awaits against arguably the top club in the world. UEFA Champions League winners and Spanish powerhouse Real Madrid have a bye into that Feb. 8 encounter.

"It's a knockout phase, so we can't take things for granted, we can't lose sight of what one mistake can do [to] our team and vice-versa, what one opportunity can do for our team as we move forward in this tournament," said Roldan, an El Salvador international.

Formidable foe

To ultimately face the defending LaLiga champions, Seattle harbor no illusions about the quality of opponent they'll first need to overcome.

Al Ahly are one of Africa's most historically successful clubs with 42 Egyptian Premier League titles to their name, along with 10 CAF (Africa) Champions League titles. As Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei pointed out, they're also much more experienced in this particular tournament than Seattle, having finished in third place on three different occasions.

"This is our first time for an MLS side and for us to be part of this – for them this is charted territory," said the veteran backstop. "So, we know we have to give them the utmost respect.

"If we do find ourselves moving forward, it's an incredible opportunity. I've been fortunate to play against Real Madrid twice, both in friendlies. But they're friendlies. So for an MLS team to have an opportunity to play against arguably the best team in the world, for something meaningful, is a privilege, it's an honor. And I think we sense that and we want to win against Al Ahly so we can showcase our skill against such a huge opponent."

Underdog mentality?

Seattle know full well that anything can happen in tournament play, where one bounce can be the difference between advancing or going home. They'll need to quickly shake off any rust, playing just two formal preseason scrimmages before their 2023 MLS campaign begins on Feb. 26. On the flip side, Al Ahly are 15 games into their league season and sit in first place.

"In a way, it's the beauty of this tournament because, in a perfect world, everybody thinks that the better team [on paper] is going to be the one that's in charge and controls the game all along," Frei said. "But these are going to be different styles clashing and styles that haven't really faced each other before.

"So, both teams really figuring each other out. But we've shown in the past that we can absorb pressure and be lethal and very effective quickly on counters."

The preparation for the tournament has been rigorous, with players reporting in earlier in January than usual to preseason training camp, where Frei said he was impressed with the level of sharpness and fitness levels. On Saturday, all of that will be put to the test with the world watching.

"In a knockout phase like this, there's no room for error," Frei said. "We have to be able to bring the result to the table right away for us to move on and go to the next round. So we've tried to work hard in preseason to make sure we're ready, but it'll be a challenge nonetheless for sure.

Added Roldan: "We're not using that as an excuse. Sometimes you need to be thrown into the fire to see what you're made of."