The Seattle Sounders’ path to the CONCACAF Champions League final round got considerably more difficult Tuesday.
Their 1-0 series-opening loss before a crowd of 21,057 at CenturyLink Field means they must go to Mexico next week and beat Santos Laguna by at least one goal on its home pitch.
“We just now have to go down there and play pretty much a perfect game,” coach Sigi Schmid said. “But that’s not impossible. It’s difficult, but not impossible.”
That might also have been a fair assessment of the Sounders’ task in Tuesday’s opening game of the CCL semifinal series, as Seattle had to send several reserves onto the pitch against Santos’ star-studded roster.
Still, the teams played scorelessly until the 54th minute, when Santos forward Herculez Gomez knocked in the game’s only goal, finishing the rebound of a shot that Seattle goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann blocked but couldn’t control.
“It forced a good save out of Marcus,” said Gomez, who made 17 appearances with the USL Sounders in 2003. “I was fortunate to get on the end of the rebound. That was pretty much all that happened. It was pretty much just a blur.”
That lone goal proved more than the Sounders could overcome with a lineup lacking forwards Eddie Johnson (toe/hamstring), Obafemi Martins (knee) and David Estrada (eye) up front, and without goalkeeper Michael Gspurning (yellow card accumulation) in back.
Schmid adapted by shifting to a 4-5-1 formation with Sammy Ochoa as the lone forward and Shalrie Joseph making his Sounders debut among the thicket of midfielders.
“We felt we only had one forward in Ochoa, so we played Ochoa up,” Schmid said. “I wanted (midfielder Alex) Caskey to be a little bit higher. He sometimes dropped a little bit deeper, but I wanted Caskey, (Brad) Evans and Mario (Martinez) to be like the next attacking group. I thought Evans got in a couple of times in the first half, but there were misplays at key moments. But those guys were to join in and link up. But I thought the effort of that group was pretty good.”
They will have to be better still in the resolution game Tuesday in Torreon, Mexico.
“It is a tough place to play,” Sounders rookie defender DeAndre Yedlin said. “Luckily, we get to go in there and just give it our all. It’s all or nothing, so we can attack, attack, attack. We have to score goals. If they score it hurts us, but all we’re trying to do is score goals. We’re just going to go in there, put in our best attacking lineup, I’m assuming, and try to score some goals.”
Last season, when Seattle and Santos were paired in the CCL quarterfinals, the Sounders won their home leg 2-1 before being thumped 6-1 in Mexico.
“You don’t want to lose your home game, but I thought we didn’t play that poorly,” Schmid said. “I thought we did all right. They’re a good team – they’re a very good team. Their front three are as dangerous a front three as you’re going to run into anywhere. They got in a few times, but I thought for the most part we held them at bay, which was good.”
That situation should improve for the next game. Gspurning will be eligible again. And Schmid held out hope that Johnson and Martins will be available by then, although he doesn’t expect that Estrada will be.
The Sounders will return to training Thursday and begin their trip to Mexico on Sunday.
The winner of this series will go to the CCL final against the winner of the Los Angeles Galaxy-Monterrey series, which begins tonight in California.
Major League Soccer freed up the Sounders’ league schedule by delaying a visit from Chivas USA originally scheduled for this weekend. With the reworked schedule, Seattle’s next MLS match will be April 13 when New England visits.blog.thenewstribune.com/soccer