Sounders FC moves into the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal tonight against Tigres of Mexico, perhaps the best team in the best league of North America.
That first part — getting past Tigres — is Seattle’s short-term problem.
But that second part — Major League Soccer catching and passing Liga MX — is a longer-term challenge for MLS and commissioner Don Garber.
Garber has publicly embraced the goal of making MLS one of the top leagues in the world within 10 years. But he also acknowledges an interim goal of passing Liga MX to become the best league in the North America, Central America and Caribbean region.
“It’s very important,” he said. “We’ve got to do better in the Champions League. The opportunity for an MLS team to win the Champions League in this region and go to a World Club Championship and compete against some of the best clubs in the world is an important goal. It’s something that we are pushing our clubs to be mindful of, and hope that they would take that tournament … far more seriously than some clubs have taken it in the past.”
Of the eight clubs advancing to the CCL quarterfinals, three are from Liga MX (Tigres, Santos Laguna, Monterrey), three are from MLS (Seattle, Houston, Los Angeles), with one each from
Costa Rica (Herediano) and Guatemala (Xelaju).
Two of the quarterfinal series pair Mexican and MLS clubs: Tigres-Seattle and Santos-Houston.
Sounders FC is 11-9-2 all-time in Champions League but 2-4 against Mexican teams. Last season, Santos ousted Seattle in the quarterfinal series by an aggregate score of 7-3, including a 6-1 mauling in Mexico.
Sounders coach Sigi Schmid noted that CCL matchups aren’t a perfect way of judging the strengths of the leagues. For one thing, the Mexican and MLS calendars do not coincide. MLS teams are closer to midseason form during the group stage, while Mexican teams are deeper into their league season during the knockout rounds. Different clubs also put different priorities on league play or international competition.
Sounders general manager Adrian Hanauer said Mexican teams generally spend more on their rosters than do MLS teams — although Garber implied the pay gap isn’t that significant.
Regardless, Mexico has produced all four CCL champions, and three of the four finals paired Mexican teams. The lone exception was 2011, when Real Salt Lake became the only MLS club to reach the final, losing to Monterrey by a 3-2 aggregate.
“In general right now, Mexico is the top league in our confederation,” Schmid said. “Obviously, the U.S. is the next-best league. I think the gap is closing. … If you go back maybe three years, even at this stage of the competition (Mexican teams) would not put out a first-choice lineup. (Now) they know that if they don’t play their top teams they’re not going to come away with a result — and even if they play their top team, it’s going to be a battle.”
Tigres — at 6-0-3 the only unbeaten club in Liga MX — is expected to go with something close to its top 11 lineup — or perhaps top 10, as goals leader Emanuel Villa is out due to injury.
The Sounders may field something even closer to their top 11 than was possible Saturday, when they opened MLS play with a 1-0 loss to Montreal. Midfielder Osvaldo Alonso and defender Marc Burch, who were under MLS suspension, are available tonight. Players held out with fitness issues, such as forward/midfielder David Estrada and central defender Djimi Traore, traveled to Mexico. However, newly acquired midfielder Shalrie Joseph remained in Seattle.
“I think we’ve shown we can play those teams tough,” Schmid said. “The maturity of the team is stronger over the years for having gone through these types of games and having played games in Mexico.”
U.S. Soccer has announced new rules for the 2013 U.S. Open Cup, including a record 68-team field, more than doubling the champion’s prize money to $250,000, and assigning all home teams by random selection. … Sounders 19-year-old rookie defender DeAndre Yedlin was named Tuesday to the MLS team of the week.
SOUNDERS FC AT TIGRES UANL
7 p.m., Estadio Universitario, Monterrey, Mexico
TV: Fox Soccer. Radio: None.
Notes: This is the first of a two-game aggregate-score series in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal round. The winner is determined by most total goals. If total goals are even, road goals are the first tiebreaker. Red cards or two yellow cards result in suspension for the next match. … Seattle advanced to the quarterfinal as a No. 3 seed by going 4-0 through the group stage. Tigres went 2-0-2, earning a No. 6 seed. This is Seattle’s third appearance in CCL and second trip to the quarterfinals. Tigres is making its CCL debut. … The Sounders will debut their new “Cascade shale” kits (uniforms). … The assigned referee is Elmer Bonilla of El Salvador.
About Tigres: The club leads its domestic league with a 6-0-3 record, Liga MX’s only unbeaten team. Tigres was founded in 1960 in San Nicolas de los Garza, Nuevo Leon. It has won three Mexican Primera Division, two Copa Mexico and two Interliga titles. Tigres qualified for CCL by winning the 2011 Mexican Apertura. This is Tigres’ first meeting with the Sounders.
Quotable: “We’ve got to go out … with the maturity to play a good game defensively. We obviously want to win the game. If we don’t win it, we want to tie it. And if we can’t tie it, we only want to lose 1-0.” – Sounders coach Sigi Schmid.
Next: The series will resolve at 7 p.m. March 12 when Tigres visits CenturyLink Field.
Don Ruiz: 253-597-8808 email@example.com/soccer