[CONCACAF CHAMPIONS LEAGUE] Playoffs in March? It's not just for college basketball teams any more. For MLS entries in the Concacaf Champions League quarterfinals, that's the only way to look at it. "This game against Santos is obviously a playoff game," said Seattle midfielder Brad Evans of a series against Mexican club Santos Laguna that kicks off Wednesday (10 p.m. ET, Fox Soccer, Galavision) at CenturyLink Field. “It’s going to be difficult.
“I’m glad we have the first game at home; if we get off to a good start and get ourselves in front it will take a little bit of the pressure off going into Mexico. Santos is playing extremely well right now, they’re going to be a very, very tough team.”
To accentuate that last point, Santos tuned up for its trip to Seattle by pummeling San Luis, 5-2, in its league game Saturday. Oribe Peralta nailed four of the goals; American striker Herculez Gomeznotched the other. Weeks ago, Gomez -- who played for the USL Sounders in 2003 -- cranked up some vitriol by claiming Sigi Schmid, while head coach of the Galaxy, had suggested he find a new career. Schmid, the Sounders' head coach since they entered MLS prior to the 2009 season, replied that he’d probably been misunderstood.
More important than the crossfire of sniping is whether the Sounders can contain the Santos attack, which lost starting striker Carlos Darwin Quintero to a torn muscle in his left leg a week and a half ago during a 2-1 loss to Guadalajara. Peralta led Santos with 13 goals during the 2011 Apertura season that concluded in December with a 3-2 aggregate loss to UANL (Tigres) in the playoff finals; he’d scored just once in the current Clausura campaign before pounding four into the San Luis net.
In league play Santos is fourth with a 5-2-2 record, 17 points, and a plus-five (16 scored, 11 conceded) goal differential. It reached the CCL quarterfinals last fall by topping a group that included Olimpia (Honduras), Real Espana (Honduras), and the Colorado Rapids. Quintero and Peralta shared the team lead with four goals apiece (of 16 scored in six matches).
“Obviously they’re a team that likes to attack and they have good attacking properties,” said Schmid to soundersfc.com. “Their midfielders, their central guys, are good with the ball.”
Two figures quite familiar to U.S. fans buttress the defense coached by former Mexican international midfielder Benjamin Galindo. Goalkeeper Oswaldo Sanchez -- Galindo’s ex-teammate with El Tri -- tried to take out Sounders forward Eddie Johnson with a post-goal slide tackle during a USA-Mexico qualifier in 2005, and Panamanian centerback Felipe Baloy led his nation to a stunning win over the U.S. in Gold Cup group play last June. Baloy, 31, has played in Mexico since 2005 following short stints in Colombia and Brazil. A rugged, reliable defender, he routinely starts attacks out of the back with accurate passes.
Santos elected to travel from Mexico Tuesday and arrive just in time to train on the new artificial surface at CenturyLink Field that evening. It played on artificial turf in that 2-1 loss to Guadalajara, and earlier in its league season won 3-1 at Tijuana.
The Sounders advanced by sharply improving their performance from the 2010-11 edition of the competition in which they won just one of six group games and lost the other five. They needed overtime to eliminate San Francisco FC (Panama) 2-1 in the preliminary round, then in Group D Seattle finished second (3-2-1, 10 points) behind Monterrey and in front of Communicaciones (Guatemala) and Herediano (Costa Rica). It won its first three group games, winning away to Monterrey and Herediano to ease its passage.
“The first year in the Champions League we had a stinker,” says Evans, a member of the 2008 MLS Cup champion Columbus squad that Schmid brought along to Seattle. “We weren’t prepared for it. As much as we thought we were prepared mentally for it, physically we weren’t.
“So we sat down last preseason and thought about preparing for his and what can we add to what we did before. I think you saw we were more prepared for the games, we were better acquainted with the regimen of Saturday-Wednesday-Saturday-Wednesday, and the travel and the logistics, things like that.”
The Sounders followed a Saturday-Wednesday-Saturday match schedule during the preseason to improve its poor record in two-game elimination series. Though it has won the U.S. Open Cup -- which uses a one-game format -- in each of its first three MLS seasons, it has also been eliminated from the MLS conference semifinals over two legs each time.
“Hopefully from past experience we learn what it takes to win elimination games,” said Evans, “because realistically even though we’ve won in the Open Cup, in the big prizes like MLS Cup and the Champions League we haven’t been able to get over that hump to get us to the next level.”