Raúl Ruidíaz, an MLS Cup champion in 2019 and a Concacaf Champions League winner in 2022, knows a thing or two about lifting major trophies with Seattle Sounders FC.
But, with the Rave Green's unprecedented FIFA Club World Cup debut mere days away, the Peruvian international striker is convinced none of those notable achievements compare to what awaits in Morocco.
"We know it's the most important challenge of them all," the 32-year-old told Extratime (full interview available on MLS Season Pass) about Seattle's participation in the tournament.
"We’re really excited, really anxious to play this game," he added, emphasizing the historic implications of the Feb. 4 test in Tangier, Morocco against Egyptian powerhouse Al Ahly (12 pm ET | FS2, FOX Deportes).
As Concacaf representatives, by way of their 2022 CCL triumph, the Sounders are Major League Soccer's first-ever Club World Cup participant. While the support of their fans is a given, Ruidíaz also believes anybody with emotional ties to MLS will be rooting – albeit grudgingly – from afar, given the Sounders' de facto position as ambassadors of the league at the tournament.
"We know that all of the United States will be supporting us," he stated, conscious that the entire global soccer community will be watching their performance against Africa's runner-up.
"There’s a lot of pressure, clearly. But more than anything, there's motivation."
Even more motivating is the possibility of facing European titans Real Madrid in a Feb. 8 Semifinal, should they emerge victorious in their Second Round test.
However, Ruidíaz refuses to think too far ahead, let alone imagine himself sharing the field with the 14-time European champions and four-time Club World Cup winners.
"We have to win the first game," he insisted. "... We’re focused on winning the first game. Then we’ll see."
Playoffs or bust
While their CCL title helped Seattle reach historic heights on the world stage, it did come with a price: namely, missing out on the Audi 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs. That unexpected blemish on an otherwise memorable campaign put an end to a league-record 13-year streak of consecutive postseason appearances – equaled only by the New York Red Bulls, who, conversely, kept their streak alive with a fourth-place finish in the Eastern Conference last year.
Injuries, particularly to midfield linchpin João Paulo, played a major part in 2022 ending on a sour note.
"I think it was terrible to have so many injuries; that influenced a lot in our performances last year," said Ruidíaz, who himself was limited to just 9g/2a in 18 regular-season appearances due to an ankle issue.
"The club are doing what they can to bring in players and make sure we have a good squad that’s competitive to make sure there isn’t a repeat of last year."
So far, the Sounders have been relatively quiet in the winter transfer market, most notably bringing in fellow striker Héber in a trade with New York City FC. They also re-signed the club's all-time scorer Fredy Montero and gave new deals to club stalwarts Jordan Morris and Cristian Roldán, plus homegrown up-and-comer Danny Leyva.
Whoever puts on the Rave Green this season, Ruidíaz knows nothing will come easy for the two-time MLS Cup champs in 2023.
“We have to prepare twice as hard, focus twice as hard and take care of ourselves twice as hard to be competitive," Ruidiaz said. "... Every team in MLS is strong. All of them."
The Sounders begin their 2023 MLS campaign at home against Colorado Rapids on Feb. 26 (8 pm ET | MLS Season Pass, FS1).
Beyond the Club World Cup and MLS regular season, even more difficult competition awaits: 2023 will also feature the expanded Leagues Cup tournament, which lasts from July 21 to August 19 and includes every MLS (29) and Liga MX (18) club.
For Ruidíaz, the chance to compete for additional international silverware and test himself against familiar opposition are reasons enough to get excited about this summer's event.
"I personally like those challenges. I like competing against other leagues, other teams, having different experiences," said the Peruvian, who spent two years in the Mexican top flight with Morelia before joining the Sounders in 2018.
Seattle, who are drawn in West Group 2 alongside Liga MX's Monterrey and Real Salt Lake, have an obligation to represent the league at the highest level, according to Ruidíaz.
"I think Liga MX teams will be ready because they know how well prepared MLS are," he said.
"Then we’ll see for real which is the best league."