Sounders' trophy aspirations resume in Champions play
Sounders FC has a CONCACAF Champions League group-stage game Thursday, hosting Caledonia AIA of Trinidad at 7 p.m. at CenturyLink Field.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Caledonia AIA of Trinidad @ Seattle Sounders FC, 7 p.m., FSC
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TUKWILA — Only two MLS teams have qualified for the CONCACAF Champions League the past three seasons: the L.A. Galaxy and Sounders FC.
And for Seattle, the international tournament for regional supremacy kicks off at 7 p.m. Thursday in a group-stage game against Caledonia AIA of Trinidad at CenturyLink Field.
So is it the most prestigious trophy the Sounders will play for this season?
"For sure within our region," said coach Sigi Schmid, whose team advanced to the quarterfinals of the 2011-12 CCL. "Winning the MLS Cup is certainly ... a high priority for this team, but in terms of international soccer and international recognition, I know being able to win the Champions League is going to bring you the most awareness of all the trophies."
The Sounders will play three games across three competitions in the next seven days — CCL, MLS and the U.S. Open Cup — but Thursday's opponent will be the trickiest in regards to preparation. Not much is known about Caledonia AIA. The basic scouting report: strong, athletic, fast, offensive-minded.
"In these games, you can't underestimate your opponent," said forward Eddie Johnson. "The early games are the most difficult ones because there's a lot of pressure on us to get to the quarterfinals."
The pressure on the Sounders will be greater this year as a group-stage favorite, which is partly due to a format change from last year.
The CCL no longer has a preliminary round, as all 24 teams advance directly into a group stage of eight three-team groups (winners advance to the quarterfinals). Previously, there were four four-team groups, which always included a top Mexican team (the top two advanced).
The new format means teams will play just four group-stage games instead of six — though each becomes more important.
"Not everything will be perfect on the away games — the long trips and everything — but it's a part of soccer from what I was dreaming about as a child," said goalkeeper Michael Gspurning, who had played his whole career in Austria and Greece before signing with Seattle in December. "It's a great experience to go to these countries and see the different styles and ... show them that American soccer is better from the rest of the continent."
• In an expected move, the Sounders acquired midfielder Mario Martinez on loan from Real Espana of Honduras. The 23-year-old is serving with the Honduran Olympic team and will join Seattle after the tournament. The Sounders traded a conditional draft pick to Real Salt Lake for his discovery rights. Schmid said Martinez is "a player who we think has a big upside."
Joshua Mayers: 206-464-3184 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @joshuamayers