FIFA Club World Cup: Seattle Sounders join the elite in Morocco

The Seattle Sounders are set to make history as the first U.S. team to compete in the FIFA Club World Cup. This annual seven-team tournament features the previous season’s club champions from each global confederation, in addition to a representative from the host nation, competing to determine the world’s top club team.

The 2022 Club World Cup (COVID-19 postponed the 2021 edition to 2022) takes place Feb. 1-11 in Tangier and Rabat, Morocco. The North African country previously hosted this tournament in 2013 and 2014. On Saturday, the Sounders will face the winner of Wednesday's opening game between Al Ahly and Auckland City.

The Sounders qualified for the 19th edition of the tournament by becoming the first MLS team to win the Concacaf Champions League, defeating Liga MX team Pumas UNAM 5-2 on aggregate over the two-leg, home and away final. The “Rave Green” won its home match 3-0 in front of a Concacaf Champions League final match record 68,741 spectators. Goalkeeper Stefan Frei won Golden Ball tournament MVP honors and the Golden Glove after recording four shutouts over the course of the competition.

In 2000, the Los Angeles Galaxy qualified for the 2001 Club World Cup by winning what was then the region's top club prize, the Concacaf Champions Cup. But the collapse of FIFA marketing partner ISL forced the cancellation of the tournament set to be hosted by Spain.

Thus, this year's Club World Cup marks only the second time that a non-Mexican team will represent Concacaf in the Club World Cup. Costa Rica's Deportiva Saprissa played in 2005s edition. In 2020, Tigres UANL became the first Concacaf team to reach the Club World Cup final, losing to perennial German champion Bayern Munich by the score of 1-0.

Sounders players such as forward Jordan Morris (top photo) and midfielder Cristian Roldan won’t be the first U.S. players to compete in the tournament.

In 1997, American Jovan Kirovski, a Southern California product, was a substitute for a Borussia Dortmund squad that won the Intercontinental Cup, the on-again, off-again competition between the European and South American champions that was a predecessor to the Club World Cup, which has been played in its current form since 2005. In 2008, Texas product Jose Francisco Torres played in all three tournament games, starting two for the Mexican club Pachuca. Last year, Christian Pulisic became the first American to win the Club World Cup, coming off the bench to help Chelsea defeat Brazil's Palmeiras 2-1 in overtime of the tournament final.

Roldan is looking forward to playing in this tournament, especially because of what it means for the continued development of American soccer.

 “I feel the same type of pride for this tournament as I do when I play with the national team," Roldan said. "We have some responsibility to show that American soccer can play at the international stage. We showed it at the World Cup which I was lucky to be a part of and now I have another chance at club level. It is important for our club to go into this tournament with a winning mentality and we have to be prepared to play really well.”

The other teams competing for this year’s trophy are:

Real Madrid (Spain) — 2022 UEFA Champions League winner (Europe). Five-time club world champion (2002, 2014, 2016, 2017, 2018).

Flamengo (Brazil) — 2022 Copa Libertadores winner (South America). Club World Cup runner-up (2019).

Auckland City (New Zealand) — 2022 OFC Champions League winner (Oceania). Best Club World Cup finish: third place (2014).

Wydad Casablanca (Morocco) — 2022 CAF Champions League winner (Africa). One previous Club World Cup appearance: sixth place (2017)

Al Ahly (Egypt) — 2022 CAF Champions League runner-up, awarded Morocco's home-team slot because Wydad qualified as CAF champion.

Al Hilal (Saudi Arabia) — 2021 AFC Champions League (Asia). Best Club World Cup finish: third place (2019)

The Sounders come into the tournament while in preseason, having only had four weeks to get fit. At Friday's press conference, Roldan acknowledged that “the rust will show,” but noted that they are on a four-day stretch of practice and getting better every day.

Besides last year's Concacaf Champions League crown, Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer (photo) guided the Sounders to MLS Cup titles in 2016 and 2019. While assistant coach to Sigi Schmid, Schmetzer celebrated four U.S. Open Cup tiles (2009, 2010, 2011, 2014) with the Sounders.

“The players are taking this tournament seriously," Schmetzer said. "They’re mentally fully prepared to try to win the first game. We will have to rely on grit and determination, play smart and conserve energy whenever possible.”

During preparations in Marbella, Spain, the Sounders played two friendlies: a 0-0 tie with Austria's Wolfsberger AC and a 3-2 loss against Sweden's Hammarby.

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The Seattle Sounders begin their Club World Cup journey Feb 4 at 12:30 p.m. ET against the winner of the tournament’s opening match on Feb 1 between Al Ahly and Auckland City. If the Sounders win its first game, it will advance to the semifinals to take on Real Madrid on Feb 8 at 2 p.m. ET with a trip to the tournament final on the line.

WEDNESDAY, February 1
Al Ahly-Auckland City 2 pm.

SATURDAY, February 4
Wydad Casablanca-Al Hilal 9:30 am.
Seattle-Al Ahly or Auckland City 12:30 pm.

TUESDAY, February 7
Flamengo-Wydad Casablanca or Al Hilal 2 pm.

WEDNESDAY, February 8
TBD-Real Madrid 2 pm.

SATURDAY, February 11
Third place 10:30 am
Final 2 pm.

Games will be broadcast on Fox Sports and Fox Deportes. All times ET.

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The future. On Dec 16, 2022, FIFA President Gianni Infantino announced a proposal for a 32-team Club World Cup starting in 2025 and to be held every four years like the men’s and women’s World Cups. This isn’t the first idea for expansion; a few years ago, a proposal for a 24-team event fell through.

Photos: Courtesy of Seattle Sounders/Major League Soccer.

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