Seattle Sounders FC, with roughly a month’s worth of preseason training and two exhibition matches to prepare for elite global competition, were bound to be slightly behind the eight-ball heading into the 2022 FIFA Club World Cup.
Any perceived fitness and sharpness issues didn’t make their 1-0 single-elimination loss to Egyptian Premier League powerhouse Al Ahly in the tournament’s second round sting any less. That's only accentuated by Seattle being Major League Soccer's first-ever Club World Cup participant, earning this opportunity via their historic 2022 Concacaf Champions League triumph.
"It's emotional. I think guys are just sad, disappointed," forward Jordan Morris told on-site reporters after the match in Tangier, Morocco. "These chances don't come around that often, so you want to try to take full advantage of them. And we wanted to obviously win and move on."
Adding another layer of salt to the wound is how close Seattle were to extra time, only to have their efforts undone in the 88th minute by a speculative follow-up shot from Al Ahly’s Mohamed Afsha that deflected off Seattle defender Alex Roldan and past goalkeeper Stefan Frei. Afsha's initial shot rang the crossbar after a midfield turnover from Danny Leyva.
"Of course, it's incredibly frustrating to come all this way," added Morris. "We worked so hard during preseason, and they're a very good team. But to lose on a goal like that is tough."
Though Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer praised his team’s effort, calling the game an "even match," he rued the series of small mishaps that led to the deciding goal.
"Sometimes that's the game,” said Schmetzer, whose team faced an Al Ahly side that's in midseason form and undefeated through 15 league matches.
"We make one little half a mistake, little error – give the ball away in that part of the field. They hit the crossbar. We have a chance to clear. It drops to the player, and he shoots and Alex tries to block it, and it goes in the goal. That's really unfortunate after all of the effort the players put in."
That sequence gave Seattle a one-and-done trip to North Africa, missing out on a Feb. 8 semifinal match vs. UEFA Champions League winners Real Madrid. Al Ahly's date against the LaLiga icons marks their third straight Club World Cup semifinal test.
"It's a missed opportunity," said Frei. "We're super happy to be here and be part of this, but you don't want to just be participants. You've worked hard to get to this point and we'll most likely never have another chance to participate in something like this, so a missed opportunity.
"There's some sad faces in the locker room and some anger, disappointment. That's all exactly where it needs to be."
João Paulo's return
One silver lining they'll carry to the 2023 campaign is the return of 2021 Landon Donovan MLS MVP finalist João Paulo, who subbed into the match in the 68th minute. That marked the midfielder's first competitive runout since tearing his ACL last May in the CCL Final's second leg vs. Liga MX's Pumas UNAM.
"You see the quality that he has, the difference-maker that he is," Morris said. "We're going to benefit so much from having him back."
Schmetzer praised the Brazilian's performance, even expressing a level of regret at not bringing him into the match earlier: "That's the one maybe I wish I would've put on a little sooner. I thought when he came into the game, he was effective. So we'll reflect on that."
Despite the disappointment, Seattle return stateside mostly healthy – Schmetzer noted midfielder Cristian Roldan has been battling "a little bit with a hip injury" through preseason – and ready to turn the page.
"The guys are pretty determined," said Schmetzer. "They understand that things happen. They do not want this to put a damper on the regular season. We have the next objective."
Added Frei: "We're going to go home now and we have to build on this. We can't reverse and then do a second start."