Having only two preseason matches – both played on the same day – to prepare for arguably the biggest tournament in club history is not an ideal runup.
But Seattle Sounders FC remain assured in their preparations as they wrap up their last days in Marbella, Spain before flying to Tangier, Morocco to face either Auckland City FC (New Zealand) or Al Ahly SC (Egypt) in a win-or-go-home match at the 2022 FIFA Club World Cup on Feb. 4. Waiting for them if they win their first game: 14-time UEFA Champions League winners Real Madrid.
"That's just the reality. We had a compressed start to our preseason," head coach Brian Schmetzer said Friday before back-to-back preseason games against Austria’s Wolfsberger AC and Sweden’s Hammarby IF.
"A lot of MLS teams, a lot of USL teams that we might have had a chance or an opportunity to play in Seattle had already made different plans by the time we got – you know, FIFA was busy with the World Cup – … all of our logistics for this Club World Cup. A lot of those opportunities went to the wayside. I'm happy with the 60- and 75-minute intrasquad scrimmages that we had in Seattle. Now we're just going to push the group out to 90 minutes to make sure their fitness is there."
Confidence in continuity
Strengthening the team’s resolve is their roster continuity. All the players who started both legs of their Concacaf Champions League Final victory last May – which made Seattle MLS's first-ever Club World Cup participant – are still on the roster.
Five players even remain from their MLS Cup 2019-winning lineup of four years ago, an eternity in MLS roster turnover time. Those players include Cristian Roldan, Jordan Morris, Nicolás Lodeiro, Raúl Ruidíaz and Stefan Frei, a veritable who’s who of all-time Sounders stats leaders.
"I talk about continuity all the time, and I think that the Sounders do an extremely good job of having that each and every year,” said Roldan, a club stalwart and US men's national team midfielder.
"Of course, we add pieces here and there, but we see these guys stick around for three to four years, five years," Roldan continued. "That's exactly what we need, and it's tough to do in our league. And so I hope that we can continue to have this continuity because it really helps us gel together and helps us compete in these types of tournaments."
Arguably nobody represents that club continuity better than Schmetzer, who coached the Sounders back in their USL days from 2002-08 and played for their NASL team in the early 1980s. For the eighth-year MLS manager, reaching the Club World Cup is both a landmark achievement and an opportunity for more.
"We are the first MLS team [to reach the Club World Cup]," Schmetzer said. "I know there were a lot of teams that were close, but we can actually say we're the first. And so for the organization, for the players, yes, and myself, yes – I'm fiercely proud of the fact that we are here, and we're going to try and put on a good show."
Return of João Paolo, addition of Héber
Though Seattle will bring a proven core to the Club World Cup, they also must contend with how, after last year’s CCL triumph, they slumped through the regular season and missed the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs for the first time in club history (13-year streak ended).
Schmetzer pointed to build-out play through the midfield and movement in the final third as areas the team can fine-tune through preseason camp, and identified the return of midfielder João Paolo and the addition of striker Héber as key developments. João Paolo suffered a torn ACL in last year’s CCL final, while Héber arrived in a trade from New York City FC and has 24g/6a in 70 MLS regular-season games.
"He makes everybody better," Schmetzer said of João Paolo. "He makes everybody better just by his choice of passing, how he passes the ball, where he passes the ball, some of those little real small nuances to our sport. So we are really pleased that he's coming along well again.
"How many minutes he plays, what's the limit from the training staff? We'll see, but any minutes I can get him on the field are going to be critical for our success."
With Héber, it’s the pure finishing that stands out: "He's just a good goalscorer. I mean, you can watch his highlight reel. Very good. Inside the penalty box, clean touches."
The Sounders will hope those two veterans, alongside their well-seasoned core, can propel the club (and MLS writ large) to new levels of global success.
"I feel the same type of pride that I do when I head over with the national team,” said Roldan. "You have a responsibility, and that’s to show that American soccer is more than capable to play at a world stage. And we saw that at the World Cup this year, and I’m fortunate and lucky to be part of that. But now I have another opportunity to show it at the club level and it’s important for myself, for our group, to go into this tournament with a great attitude and a winning mentality."