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Originally published Sunday, March 4, 2012 at 8:00 PM

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CONCACAF Champions League is 'vital' for Sounders FC

The Sounders begin quarterfinal play at 7 p.m. Wednesday against Mexican club Santos Laguna. More than regional bragging rights are on the line in the tournament, as the winner advances to the FIFA Club World Cup, where the Sounders could potentially play the likes of an FC Barcelona on the world stage.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Wednesday

Santos Laguna @ Sounders FC, CenturyLink Field, 7 p.m.

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What is the CONCACAF Champions League?

And why is it so important?

For Sounders FC and its hard-core supporters, answers come easy.

Measuring yourself internationally is "the nature of soccer around the world," said technical director Chris Henderson.

But to the more casual fan, adjustment to yet another soccer competition — in addition to the MLS season and the U.S. Open Cup — has been somewhat gradual. While the team expects to average more than 40,000 in attendance for MLS games this year, less than 20,000 tickets had been sold as of last week for Wednesday's 7 p.m. home leg of a CCL quarterfinal against Mexico's Santos Laguna.

That isn't to say Seattle's support is disappointing. The past few years, CenturyLink Field crowds have ranked among the largest in the competition.

In this case, however, the ticket sales don't quite reflect the magnitude of this matchup for the Sounders.

"It's a really vital, crucial series, and we expect our fans to come out," said coach Sigi Schmid. "We'd love to see the place sell out."

The Sounders haven't needed to appeal for more fan support very often, but in this instance, they have.

Here's why.

The basics

CONCACAF — the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football — is the governing body for soccer in this area of the world, and its Champions League is a tournament for its best teams. More than regional bragging rights are on the line, as the winner advances to the FIFA Club World Cup, where the Sounders could potentially play the likes of an FC Barcelona on the world stage.

Berths into the CCL are determined by each country's federation, and the Sounders have qualified the past three years by winning three successive Open Cups. MLS teams can also qualify through advancement to the MLS Cup or a top finish in the regular season.

The process is similar for other countries. Stronger leagues, like Mexico's, are often granted more berths.

"This is the truest measure of North and Central American soccer," said Sounders midfielder Brad Evans.

Seattle qualified for the 2011-12 quarterfinals by advancing last year through a preliminary round, then clinching a top-two finish in the group stage.

Eight teams remain in the knockout rounds: two American MLS teams (Sounders FC, Los Angeles Galaxy); one MLS team from Canada (Toronto FC); four Mexican teams (Santos Laguna, Monterrey, Morelia, UNAM Pumas); and one from El Salvador (Isidro Metapan).

The quarterfinals, semifinals and final are each two-game, aggregate-goals series, and away goals break a tie. If needed, extra time or a penalty-kick shootout will determine a winner.

Only Mexican teams have won the CCL, which was reworked from the long-standing Champions Cup in 2008. In the 46 Champions League/Cup tournaments dating to 1962, 27 have had a Mexican winner. From MLS, only the Schmid-coached Galaxy (2000) and D.C. United (1998) have won.

The allure

It's not a stretch to call Wednesday's game one of the biggest in the Sounders' history. Adding context to that claim is an understanding of the club's long-standing desire for global relevance.

"One of the goals we set out with early in the club's existence was to play, compete and succeed internationally, and this is our chance in true competition," said Adrian Hanauer, general manager and part owner.

The UEFA Champions League in Europe is perhaps the world's most popular club competition. In this region, the CONCACAF version is starting to carry similar weight for its participating teams.

A couple of the Sounders' international signings, Austrian goalkeeper Michael Gspurning and Swedish defender Adam Johansson, have cited the team's CCL participation in helping draw them to Seattle.

"It's huge," said Schmid. "This isn't an exhibition match. This is the real thing. ... MLS playoffs are important and we want to win the MLS Cup, but winning the (CCL) would be phenomenal. It'd be the biggest thing that we've done."

The preparation

From the start of training this preseason, the Sounders' priority was beating Santos.

Very early on, Schmid had the team's projected starters working together in hopes of replicating real-match competition, establishing cohesion and building fitness as quickly as possible. Additionally, the Sounders scheduled their final three preseason games on Wednesdays to simulate the rhythm of the upcoming CCL series (both games are on Wednesdays).

The subtle changes added some extra bite and urgency to camp.

"I think we're about as ready as we can be, short of being able to be eight games into our season," said Schmid.

Another sign that preparation has been successful from a physical standpoint, Henderson pointed out, is that nearly the entire squad is injury-free.

"You can tell Sigi's been through it before," Henderson said.

That's good, because Santos might be the best team Seattle has ever played. Nicknamed Los Guerreros, Spanish for "The Warriors," the Mexican club won 5-2 on Saturday to jump up to third in the Mexican Primera Division standings.

But the Sounders are up to the challenge — "That's what it takes for us to get to the next level," said Evans — and they're hopeful another impassioned CenturyLink Field crowd will be there to spur them on.

Joshua Mayers: 206-464-3184 or jmayers@seattletimes.com

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