The Seattle Sounders were thought to come out of the draw for the CONCACAF Champions League knockout stages worse off than any other club. They drew Santos Laguna, who had rolled through the group stage and were one of Mexico's best teams done the stretch of the Apertura en route to a place in the Liguilla final. If there was a team in the competition that no one wanted to be drawn against in the quarterfinals, it was Santos.
Something changed between the draw and the start of the quarterfinals this week, though. Santos stopped playing like one of the region's powerhouses. They have won just once in the last month and have been forced to bench Felipe Baloy, who was supposed to be their anchor at the back, but was playing terribly. They're not a disaster by any means, but they may not be the tournament favorites anymore.
Santos' struggles opens the door for the Sounders, who have most of their key players back from a year ago, including their three MVP candidates Fredy Montero, Oswaldo Alonso and Mauro Rosales. Seattle has made the Champions League the priority for the club as well.
"It's the most prestigious cup any MLS team competes for," Schmid said to the Seattle Times. "MLS Cup is certainly an important championship -- you always want to win your country's championship -- as is Supporters Shield, as is the U.S. Open Cup. But if you can win the championship of your confederation, if you can be the champions of that group, if you can lay claim to the title that says, 'Hey, we're the best team from Canada all the way through Panama,' you know that's something that's pretty special and pretty unique."
The Sounders are going for it. They'll have home field in the first leg and look to take advantage of it. There is new, softer turf at CenturyLink Field that won't give the Sounders as much of an advantage as the old turf might have and there won't be 40,000 fans in the stands as there is for league matches, but the Sounders still have to get a good result at home.
As for Santos, nobody is quite sure how seriously they are taking the competition. They took the opportunity to play some reserves in the group stage and may do the same in the quarterfinals so they could rest players for the league, where they are just three points clear of not making the playoffs. Injuries will also make things more difficult on the Mexican club as Carlos Quintero is out due to injury and Rafael Figueroa also looks like to miss the match after spraining his knee.
At the very least, Santos will be boosted by a positive result over the weekend. Oribe Peralta finally turned things around with a tremendous performance and they are still stacked with talent. The question is whether they give that talent a run out in Seattle or wait for the home leg to make something of the quarterfinals.
Seattle isn't thinking about that second leg, though. They proved they could win in Mexico when they won at Monterrey in the knockout stages, but their entire focus is on the first leg and building a healthy lad. The way Santos has played of late, the Sounders might just do it, too.