The Seattle Sounders have made a habit of taking every competition they're in seriously, and the CONCACAF Champions League is no different. In last year's edition, Seattle mixed starters, oft-used substitutes, and a handful of reserves, but found out the hard way that the CCL can be rather cruel. On three separate occasions, Seattle took a lead only to end up losing the game; they weren't the first MLS club to do that in CONCACAF play, and they probably won't be the last. The Sounders were competitive in every game, but ultimately seemed to lack the street smarts to escape what was a very difficult group.
This time around the group is easier, but the path is just as long. Seattle is back in the qualifying round after earning a second consecutive US Open Cup trophy, and they'll again be facing Central American opposition. This time around, the opponent is San Francisco FC of Panama, a team that the CCL has treated particularly harshly. The La Chorrera-based club has seen all of the bad outcomes the tournament can offer. They've finished dead last in a group (losing five and drawing once), and in qualifying they've been both upset by a tiny Caribbean club and utterly humiliated by a Mexican side. Still, they're one of the only clubs to participate in every CCL tournament, which underlines their status as one of Panamanian soccer's top dogs.
Despite that experience in the tournament, Seattle should be considered favorites to get to the group stage. San Francisco may feature a midfield that includes former Panamanian national team stalwart Manuel Torres in the engine room and current international Eybir Bonaga providing the creativity underneath burly former Colorado Rapids target man Roberto Brown, but their defense is extremely young aside from Colombian Freddy Arizala.
There are promising talents like Rolando Algandona and Luis Olivardia, but it's still a raw group that Seattle should be able to get the better of by playing quick combinations and moving intelligently off the ball. In other words, the Sounders already play the style of soccer that is most likely to cause San Francisco problems.
Should they advance, Seattle will once again face defending CCL champs Monterrey. Monterrey is so strong that they can afford to shuffle a player like Egidio Arevalo Rios - Copa America champion Uruguay's starting defensive midfielder - out on loan because they have other options. While veterans Osvaldo Martinez and Duilio Davino have departed, they've been replaced (in the case of Martinez, his replacement is Argentine Cesar Delgado, who previously played for Olympique Lyon in the "other" Champions League). Monterrey has arguably improved on last season's imperious side, and are easy favorites to win the group as well as the competition as a whole.
The good news is that it gets easier from there. Comunicaciones of Guatemala occupy the other seeded spot in the group, and they're a team that Seattle should be able to beat. That's not to say it will be easy; Las Cremas can call on some tough, disciplined players with international experience like defender Carlos Castrillo and midfielders Fredy Thompson and Rigoberto Gomez. The wonderfully-named Transito Montepeque will be relied on to supply the goals, which were in short supply during their last appearance in the CCL (2009-2010). The Sounders should have the defensive chops to keep Comunicaciones off the scoreboard, but then the Guatemalans will be hoping to do the same to Seattle. Both games against them are likely to be close, tense affairs with relatively few chances either way.
The final group spot will likely go to CS Herediano of Costa Rica, who should have little trouble with Guyanese club Alpha United. Alpha did take the Puerto Rico Islanders to overtime in the Caribbean Football Union's title game, but this was part of a cinderella run; just getting that far in such a minor tournament was considered a huge shock.
Assuming Herediano gets through, they may find the going a bit tough in Group D. There is some very promising young talent available for coach Alejandro Giuntini, especially holding midfielder Jose Miguel Cubero and goalkeeper Leonel Moreira, both of whom were in Costa Rica's squads for the recent Gold Cup and Copa America tournaments. However, there is likely not enough defensive quality throughout the squad; Seattle should be able to test Moreira often. Los Rojiamarillos will have some attacking quality, however, with former New England Revolution playmaker Jose Cancela playing underneath physical forward Victor Nunez.
Seattle's task is not without potential pitfalls, but Herediano and Comunicaciones are not well-balanced teams. If you could combine them into one team, they'd be a real threat, but the fact that Seattle is good at both attacking and defending should be enough to take advantage of Herediano's fragility and the fact that Comunicaciones will struggle offensively. Topping Monterrey is probably a bridge too far for the Sounders - or anyone in this tournament, frankly - but second place is a completely reasonable goal for Sigi Schmid's side.