Sounders Get Their Chance to Make History in Mexico

guerreritas1.jpg
If you like cheerleaders with your soccer, you'll love Santos Laguna's Guerreritas.
It's only mid-March, and their MLS season opener is still days away, but Sounders FC can make a significant statement Wednesday night (5 p.m., Fox Soccer Channel) in Torreón, Mexico.

The competition is the CONCACAF Champions League; the opposition is Santos Laguna, tied for the Primera División lead; the capacity crowd of 30,000 at Estadio Corona will be hostile and deafening; and the stakes couldn't be much higher. The winner would become one of the top four professional teams in the U.S., Mexico, Canada, and all other soccer-playing countries from Panama on north.

It's uncharted territory for the Sounders, with the possibility of a giant step onto the world stage, and matches that count against international powers like Barcelona and Manchester United, teams Seattle has faced only in friendlies.

Here's a reality check: Despite coming away with the result--a 2-1 victory--in the home leg of the quarterfinal last Wednesday night, the Sounders looked like a team that hadn't played a meaningful contest in several months, as two lightning strikes on offense and a just-good-enough defense was enough to carry the night before 23,000-plus at the Clink.

That back line has to tighten up, facing a team that swept all four of its home Champions League matches, outscoring opponents 14-3, and is undefeated in six league matches at home this year.

But that number includes two draws, and with a one-goal advantage entering the match, a draw would represent a victory for the Sounders. So would a loss, as long as it's high-scoring and by a one-goal margin. A 3-2 or even a 4-3 loss would lift the Sounders into the semifinals, having scored more away goals in the series.

A 1-0 loss, however, would enable Seattle fans to refocus on Major League Soccer and the quest for a fourth consecutive U.S. Open Cup. If Santos Laguna wins 2-1, there would be a half-hour of extra time, with the possibility of a penalty-kick shootout (boo! hiss!) to decide the winner.

The Sounders should score at least once--they have too much firepower to be shut out--but a second Seattle goal would be huge, forcing Santos to score four times in order to advance.

This is a veteran Sounders team that won't be rattled or intimidated by the crowd, having won in Mexico (beating perennial power Monterrey), Costa Rica, and Panama in Champions League play last year. Its newcomers have competed in World Cup qualifiers for Austria, Sweden and Denmark, with new forward Eddie Johnson netting eight goals in nine qualifiers for the U.S. and playing in two 2006 World Cup group matches in Germany.

Johnson and his tender hamstring saw action only in the final 15 minutes last week, but his ability in the air is an advantage the Sounders can exploit. With three of their past four goals scored on headers, it's not hard to envision the athletic 6-footer soaring above a shorter defender (or two) and nodding the ball past Santos keeper Oswaldo Sánchez, especially off a corner or free kick.

Altitude could be a factor (Torreon is almost 3,700 feet above sea level), although the Sounders are used to even higher MLS venues at Colorado and Real Salt Lake. So could the heat, with temperatures topping out near 90 degrees.

But more than anything else, the outcome depends on the Sounders playing on their terms, not getting knocked off stride and drawn into the physical brand of soccer that Santos displayed in the first leg, a match that grew increasingly chippy as time ran down. Santos players often initiated contact, leading with an elbow or shoulder, trying to elicit a physical response which they hoped officials would observe and flag.

Expect more of the same, and don't be surprised if half of Seattle's starting back four is targeted, as Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and Leo Gonzalez carry yellow cards into the second leg. Another yellow would rule either out of the first match of the next series, although the Sounders surely would trade a one-game absence--even for Hurtado, their top defender--in exchange for advancing.

 
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