MLS, Sounders Slowly Winning Respect Of Mexican Opponents

SEATTLE - MARCH 07: David Estrada #16 of the Seattle Sounders FC is congratulated by teammates after scoring against goalkeeper Oswaldo Sanchez #1 of Santos Laguna at CenturyLink Field on March 7, 2012 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

Sounders' win over Santos Laguna marks the seventh time in past two years that a MLS team has beaten a Mexican one.

Brad Evans knows that there's a serious task ahead of the Seattle Sounders. He knows that beating a team as good as Santos Laguna is far from easy. He knows that holding a 2-1 advantage in their CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal is nice, but hardly a guarantee of anything.

He knows this too: there is nothing impossible about what the Sounders need to do.

"I think the guys are confident right now," Evans said on Wednesday. "Obviously we wanted to have the shutout and not let that one goal go in, but to respond and get the second goal gives us even more confidence going down there. We know that they have to beat us and I can tell you that nobody is scared to go down there."

Read that last line again -- "nobody is scared to go down there" -- and think about that for a second. More specifically, think about what it means about how far the Sounders and MLS have come in the last couple years.

It wasn't so long ago that the Mexican clubs playing MLS ones were not so unlike the Harlem Globetrotters playing the Washington Generals. Sure, they might put on a decent show every now and then, but you always knew how it was going to turn out.

As you may have noticed, that's not so much the case anymore. During the 2011-12 CONCACAF Champions League, MLS teams have gone 4-6-1 against Mexican opponents. MLS teams have beaten Mexican teams seven times during the last two tournaments and managed nine results.

Even going to Mexico is not the herculean task that it was once. Starting with Real Salt Lake's 2-2 tie at Monterrey during last year's championship round, MLS teams have managed results in three of their six trips to Mexico.

It is worth noting that no MLS team has ever eliminated a Mexican side from CCL competition. If any team is capable of changing that, it's the Sounders.

Even before Wednesday's result, the Sounders had already shown they are capable of hanging with Mexican teams. In August, the Sounders beat a very good Monterrey team -- that was, incidentally, also using many of their normal starters -- despite fielding a side heavy on reserves themselves. A few months later, the Sounders largely outplayed a desperate Monterrey team only to have Cesar Delgado secure advancement with a 60th minute goal.

On Wednesday, they stood toe-to-toe with arguably the best team in Mexico. Sure, Los Guerreros were missing their best forward and centerback. But the team they fielded was essentially the best one they had available. In any case, the Sounders weren't exactly playing with their best squad, either. Eddie Johnson was limited to just a few minutes of reserve time as he's still gaining fitness. The whole team was playing their first competitive match since last year's MLS Cup playoffs.

Despite this, the Sounders generally looked to be the better team. Santos Laguna goalkeeper Oswaldo Sanchez was tested on several occasions and at least one shot had to be cleared off the line by a defender. The Sounders dominated large chunks of possession and never looked overmatched. A quick glance at the statistics and you'd have no idea which belonged to which team.

Fredy Montero looked like he might be the best player in North America at times, with the highlight being his inch perfect pass that found David Estrada at the far post. Mauro Rosales commanded the field just as you'd expect the captain to do, and picked up an assist on a perfectly delivered free kick that Evans shouldered into the net. Eddie Johnson looked like he took a dip into the fountain of youth. The Sounders defense rarely looked vulnerable.

This is no accident. While not specifically designed for CCL, this is a team that is almost perfectly suited for this kind of competition. Among the 13 Sounders that saw the field on Wednesday, seven are native Spanish speakers; 10 have suited up for their countries; and all but one had previously experienced international competition, and he only played a couple minutes. Michael Gspurning and Adam Johansson, two of the Sounders' more significant offseason acquisitions, both listed off CCL as a reason they found Seattle attractive. The front office and ownership have long preached the importance of this tournament.

The task is still not done. The Sounders know that to really make a statement, they'll need to become the first MLS team to eliminated a Mexican one. Even if they fail to do so, though, a new era has obviously begun. Mexican teams are slowly learning to respect their MLS counterparts.

"We knew the team we were going to face, they are a strong team with a great crowd," Santos Laguna coach Benjamin Galindo said. "This team can play with any team in Mexico."

And that is an entirely different kind of victory.

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