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Originally published Tuesday, August 3, 2010 at 10:54 PM

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Steve Kelley

Far from home, Sounders find their way

A goal by Alvaro Fernandez in the 74th minute gave Sounders FC a draw, advancing the club to group play in the CONCACAF Champions League.

Seattle Times staff columnist

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — The Sounders signed Alvaro Fernandez for moments like this. They signed the Uruguayan national for his poise and his experience in big games, in difficult places.

And in the 74th minute, in miserably sloppy conditions, when it looked as if Sounders FC and Metapan were heading toward a dangerous overtime to decide this preliminary leg of the CONCACAF Champions League, Fernandez caught James Riley's cross perfectly and struck a goal as lovely and important as any in Sounders FC history.

For Fernandez, a substitute in the 64th minute, it was his first shot as a Sounder and his second game.

It was a golden moment, tying the score at 1-1 and sending Sounders FC, based on aggregate score, into group play in two weeks against Marathon of Honduras.

As the Sounders mobbed their new teammate, a group of about 20 Seattle fans, part of the Emerald City Supporters, celebrated by singing, dancing and lighting sparklers behind the goal.

This setting was something entirely different; something new and exotic for the second-year Sounders FC.

This was their first meaningful game outside North America. It was their first test in the Third World against an opponent that was comfortable with the Spartan surroundings.

In the second leg of the home-and-home preliminary round of their first CONCACAF Champions League, the Sounders needed a tie or a win to advance into group play. And it needed to test its will in a place far from the comfortable stadiums of the MLS.

"I thought the first half was probably the worst we've played in a couple of months, which was a little bit frustrating," Sounders keeper Kasey Keller said. "But what tonight shows is how deep we're getting as a team.

"What you saw is what happens when you bring in a little bit of experience like Alvaro has, how that helps settle things down. We have a lot of quality coming off the bench now. Now we can recover from a bad half."

A steady rain quickly turned the pitch into something resembling lumpy, green oatmeal. Plastic horns blown by the several thousand fans of "home" team Isidro Metapan buzzed insistently like bees.

And, just to accentuate the difference in the environment, a small force of local police in full riot gear, stood along the sidelines.

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This is life outside the MLS and outside the rich confines of the world's major leagues.

Here, many pitches are more mush than lush. And the soccer has an almost survivalist feel.

"This was a good result for us, because that was a team we never should have lost to on the two legs," Keller said. "Sometimes you can't play your best and you have to find ways to get results. I think we've done that. A win like this shows character."

This is the world's game and, although this Champions League still is finding its way in the crowded world of international cups and championships, this home-and-home series was a chance for increased credibility for the Sounders.

They will need to perform well on stages like this if they want to continue to recruit international players like recent World Cuppers Fernandez and Blaise Nkufo.

Metapan, the defending Salvadoran league champion, which lost the first leg of this home-and-home series, 1-0 last week in Seattle, was a much different looking team in the rematch.

And in the 17th minute, it struck first on a cross from captain Paulo Suarez that Anel Canales headed past a helpless Keller.

But, after intermission, the Sounders controlled the slow, choppy pitch. And this result is further evidence that they appear, finally, to have found their way.

They are undefeated in their last seven games, including five wins. They are more settled in midfield. Keller has been magical in goal. Fredy Montero has emerged as a do-as-I-do leader.

They are much deeper than they were in spring and, as Nkufo and Fernandez get more time with their new teammates, the Sounders look much more dangerous than they did before the World Cup.

"It's all about the character of our team," coach Sigi Schmid said. "This team works hard for each other. If we make mistakes, we fight and try to get the ball back.

"I think our character, right now, is exemplified by Fredy, because of the effort he's putting in game after game. But everybody is stepping up when the opportunities present themselves. And nobody is letting anybody down."

In the final minutes, the rain came down harder and the Emerald City Supporters danced crazier and the young Sounders grew up, just a little bit more.

One goal turned an ugly night beautiful.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com.

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About Steve Kelley

Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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