Why the Sounders’ Club World Cup appearance is such a big deal

The club’s win in May set them on the road to Morocco as the first MLS team ever to compete in the prestigious event.

Victorious athletes holding up a trophy

The Sounders celebrate their victory over Pumas UNAM in the 2022 CONCACAF Champions League Final. Albert Rusnák hoists the cup, flanked by Danny Leyva on his right and Yéimar Gómez Andrade on his left. (Courtesy of Mike Fiechtner/Sounders FC Communications)

At the time of this writing, the Seattle Sounders are in Spain, training in anticipation of what they hope will be a successful World Cup run. But wait, you might be asking, isn’t the World Cup over?

Yes, but the World Cup you’re thinking of – the one that ran for three weeks in December and ended with a victory for Argentina – was for national teams. This one, better known as the Club World Cup, which kicked off Wednesday in Morocco and ends February 11, is for professional teams. It’s a much smaller tournament, featuring only seven teams; but because the Sounders are the first team ever from Major League Soccer to participate, it’s an enormous deal. (When I say ever, I mean since 2005, when the tournament, launched in 2000, began occurring annually, but still.)

How did they earn the chance to play for global glory in Morocco – the club’s first overseas contest in its history? It’s soccer, so it’s complicated, of course. Here I will attempt to uncomplicate it.

First you need to understand how soccer is organized globally.

Soccer, or football as it is known in a lot of other places, is governed by an organization called FIFA, an acronym for Fédération Internationale De Football Association. (Fun fact: The sport, at its origins, was known as “association football,” a name that some cultures abbreviated to a variation of its second syllable: soccer.) Anyway, FIFA is best known as the organization behind that other World Cup, but it also has a hand in soccer at a more local level.

Each continent has its own FIFA sub-organization – the Asian Football Confederation (AFC); the Confederation of African Football (CAF); the South American Football Confederation (CONMEBOL); the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC); the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA); and the Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF), the division the Sounders play in. And each of these sub-organizations sends a team, through its own intramural tournament, to the Club World Cup.

In addition, the host nation gets to send a club, adding a seventh entrant to the six continental champions. In this case, that host nation is Morocco.

Joshua Atencio and Cristian Roldan train with the Sounders in Spain at preseason camp in advance of the Club World Cup, on Jan. 24, 2023. (Courtesy of Pickett/Sounders FC Communications)

How did Morocco get to host?

Well, how does FIFA decide anything? It may be pertinent that Morocco was the runner-up among the competitors to host the 2026 World Cup, which was awarded to a joint bid from Canada, Mexico and the U.S. (By the way, Seattle has been chosen as one of the 16 host cities.) Hosting the Club World Cup could conceivably have been Morocco’s consolation prize.

Now, since Morocco’s best team, Wydad Casablanca, also won the CAF competition, Africa got to choose a second-place entrant, which turned out to be Al Ahly, from Cairo.

Now about the tournament.

Unlike the World Cup, which this year included 32 teams divided into eight groups, the seven teams in the Club World Cup are organized into a somewhat complex single-elimination bracket. In short, the bottom-seeded team will need to win four games to take home the championship, while the two top-seeded teams need to win only two. The Sounders are in the middle, which means they have to win three games to bring the trophy home.

The host nation’s team (or, in this case, its replacement, since Wydad is also the African champion) plays a play-in match against the entrant from the smallest continental organization, Oceania. This year that was Auckland City FC from New Zealand. (Though a semipro team, Auckland City participated in the Club World Cup for a record 10th time. Such is the strength of Oceania in world soccer.)

The Al Ahly vs. Auckland match took place February 1, and is relevant to you because the winner, Al Ahly, will face the Sounders in their first match on Saturday, in Tangier, at 9 a.m. Pacific. (See below for watch party and TV broadcast info.)

(The other two teams at our level of the bracket, AFC champion Wydad and the top Asian team, Al Hilal from Saudi Arabia, play Saturday morning at 6:30, right before the Sounders do.)

If the Sounders win Saturday, they move on to the February 8 semifinal against UEFA’s Real Madrid, which, even the most casual soccer fan probably knows, is historically one of the top clubs in the world and will presumably be the Sounders’ toughest opponent ever.

Do we have a chance?

Sure, we have a chance. But, as Jeremiah Oshan of fan blog Sounder at Heart put it, “I don’t know if Real Madrid will be playing all their stars early in the tournament, but their roster is collectively worth nearly $1 billion. … They only have four players on their roster valued at less than the Sounders’ most expensive player.” The Sounders 2023 payroll, by the way, is just over $19 million.

Of course, as Oscar nominees always say, it’s an honor just to be invited. As former Sounders General Manager Garth Lagerwey told Sounder at Heart after the Sounders won the CONCACAF championship on May 4, 2022, earning it a spot in this tournament: “Like, this is what you do it for. It’s ... it’s just amazing. It is. I’d love to be real cool and calm, ‘Ah, it’s no big deal,’ but it’s a big deal.”

The Sounders celebrate their victory over Pumas UNAM in the 2022 CONCACAF Champions League Final. (Courtesy of Rod Mar/Sounders FC Communications)

Now let’s back up and talk about CONCACAF.

If you thought the Club World Cup tournament details were complicated, wait until you hear how the Sounders ended up there, namely through the CONCACAF tournament … sort of.

First of all, since this Club World Cup was postponed due to the other World Cup in December, it’s technically the 2022 Club World Cup, and qualification for it was determined according to the results of the 2021 season.

Each year the U.S., which is to say Major League Soccer, is allotted four slots among the 16 teams chosen for the CONCACAF tournament (which, remember, includes clubs in Canada, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean). Traditionally our four slots go to these four teams, which due to the list’s complexity, must be delivered via bullet points:

  • The winner of each year’s MLS Cup.
  • The winner of each year’s Supporters Shield, awarded to the team that earned the most points in the regular season. This is not necessarily the Cup winner – in fact it rarely is. (Also, “points” here have nothing to do with the goals scored in a match. In soccer, season standings are determined by a point system, rather than by a simple win/loss record: Three points are awarded a team for a win, one point for a draw.)
  • The team with the most regular-season points in the other conference (Western or Eastern) than the Shield winner.
  • The winner of the U.S. Open Cup, a sidebar tournament, separate from the MLS regular season, that also involves teams from divisions lower than MLS in the U.S. soccer system.

I say traditionally here because the 2021 Open Cup was canceled due to COVID-19. So that year, the fourth slot, CONCACAF decided, went to the team with the best regular-season record that hadn’t already won a slot via one of the other three criteria. In 2021, that was the Sounders. In other words, the Sounders got in only via the fluke of this special one-time pandemic-necessitated rule – but then went on to win the whole thing.

About that win.

OK, so the clubs the Sounders defeated on their way to the championship were Motagua from Honduras; León from Mexico; MLS team NYCFC; and, in the finals, the Pumas from Mexico. (The complete bracket, with full details, is here.) All of these were two-leg home-and-away matches, and the team with the most aggregate goals after those two matches advanced. In the away leg against the Pumas, April 27 in Mexico City, the Sounders came back from 2-0 down in the match’s last 25 minutes to draw 2-2.

That meant that at the home leg on May 4 at Seattle’s Lumen Field, the Sounders were starting even. With a pair of goals from Raúl Ruidíaz and an 88th-minute goal from Nicolás Lodeiro as the cherry on top, the match ended 3-0, making the Sounders the first team ever to win CONCACAF, which had been dominated by Mexico for a decade and a half, and thus earn a trip to the Club World Cup. Many Sounders fans – especially the record-breaking 68,741 who saw it live – would choose this as the single greatest match in our history.

And, again, no MLS team has ever done this.

In the league’s 26-year history, only two American teams had won the tournament, but both wins were in the pre-Club World Cup era: D.C. United in 1998 and the L.A. Galaxy in 2000. The Sounders are the first who can use the title as a stepping-stone to compete globally.

But even then, the Sounders and their fanbase had to wait months to find out the details of the 2022 Club World Cup. As of mid-December, the dates and host had still not been announced (to the public, anyway). The bracket was finally set January 13.

On January 20, the Sounders left for a few weeks of training in Marbella, Spain, where, to warm up, they have scrimmaged against teams from Germany and Sweden.

Nouhou Tolo trains with the Sounders in Spain in advance of the Club World Cup, on Jan. 24, 2023. (Courtesy of Pickett/Sounders FC Communications)

What comes after the Club World Cup?

Then, after they get home, the 2023 MLS regular season for the Sounders begins February 26. The Open Cup runs March thru September. Then there’s yet another competition comprising all teams in MLS and Mexico’s Liga MX: the Leagues Cup, July 21-August 19; under a new format, the top three finishers there will also qualify for the 2024 CONCACAF tournament. (But what about the 2023 CONCACAF tournament? It’s happening this spring, but the Sounders won’t be involved because they were not among the four MLS teams that qualified.)

“We hope it’s not a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, [but] it’s a pinnacle of our success,” says Taylor Graham, a former Sounder (2005, 2007-11) who moved from the pitch to the front office and is now the team’s chief revenue and marketing officer. Though, as Graham points out, the Sounders have measured themselves against visiting world superclubs before – Tottenham, Chelsea, Manchester United, Barcelona, Boca Juniors – “playing these teams in a meaningful competition, not in a friendly,” lifts the team to a new level.

The global attention, he says, will benefit the organization immeasurably, and raise the city’s profile as an American epicenter of the sport – it’s an opportunity “to truly represent Seattle and the Pacific Northwest community with what makes us unique.”

Who knows, but it’s possible that FIFA’s decision to name Seattle as a World Cup 2026 host city, announced in June, might have been influenced by our CONCACAF win. Whatever happens this weekend, the May championship win was “in front of the largest crowd in our CONCACAF history … I will never forget that,” says Graham, “and the players feel the same.”

To see the Sounders, we hope, defeat Al Ahly, join the free watch party the team is sponsoring at the Seattle Center Armory. Doors open at 8 a.m., with kickoff at 9; entry will continue until the Armory reaches capacity. Or watch on FOX Sports 2 or locally on FOX 13.

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