Nearly nine months after becoming the first MLS team to qualify for the FIFA Club World Cup, the Seattle Sounders finally know which opponent stands between them and a date with Real Madrid in the semifinals.
With the Sounders watching from their training base in Marbella, Spain, Egyptian side Al Ahly beat New Zealand’s Auckland City 3-0 in their tournament opener on Wednesday in host country Morocco of seven clubs. Seattle will travel to Morocco on Thursday and face Al Ahly in Tangier on Saturday (12:30 p.m. ET, FS2, FOX Deportes and the FOX Sports app.) in a single-elimination game. The winner will meet 14-time reigning European champions Real Madrid on February 8. The final is three days later in Rabat.
Not that the Sounders are looking past Saturday’s foe.
“We’re definitely not looking past Al Ahly,” Seattle goalkeeper Stefan Frei told FOX Sports shortly after the Egyptians advanced to the quarterfinals on Saturday. “We know we have to give them the utmost respect.”
“They are very dangerous on the counter,” added defender Alex Roldan. “They like to cross a lot. We definitely have to be strong in the back line and make sure we don’t give up anything easy with them.”
This is not just lip service from Frei and Roldan. The Sounders aren’t just saying the right things. These are not simply seasoned professionals who know better than to provide an adversary with bulletin board material. While the Sounders have broken a glass ceiling just by reaching the Club World Cup, this is Al Ahly’s third trip in a row. They have also won the bronze medal two years in a row, knocking off then-champion Monterrey Mexico last year.
The Club World Cup has a long way to go to become as relevant as, say, the UEFA Champions League, of course, let alone its namesake for national teams. However, its main stature is sure to explode in the coming years, with FIFA planning to expand the 2025 edition to 32 teams.
For now, it’s still mostly a curiosity for fans, at least those outside of Europe. The timing and location of the mid-season, usually North Africa, the Middle East or Japan, is often criticized by both leagues and Old World supporters, although European clubs have won 14 of the 18 All-time Club World Cups, including the last nine. (Real Madrid has the most titles, with four).
South American clubs have won the other four titles. Clubs anywhere else are often seen as cannon fodder. But Liga MX power Tigres reached the final two years ago. Since 2016, clubs in Japan and the United Arab Emirates have also done so.
Still, part of the reason it took so long for an MLS team to win the CONCACAF Champions League and qualify for the Club World Cup is that the first one was organized during the preseason of the League. The timing of this tournament is equally dire for Seattle, who haven’t played a competitive game since October 9th. “In a normal year, I think that would pass Week 1 for us for the MLS preseason.” Roldán said. “But they weren’t using that as an excuse.”
Seattle scheduled matches in Spain against Austria’s Wolfsberg and Sweden’s Hammarby. By contrast, Al Ahly are 15 games into their domestic campaign, the last just over a week ago. So fitness is a big concern for coach Brian Schmetzer’s men. They cannot allow Saturday’s contest to turn into a track meet. This is likely not a free and end-to-end affair.
“We have to find the right moments to slow down the game,” Roldan admitted.
There’s no guarantee it will work: CONCACAF’s best has reached the last four just five times in the past decade. “In an immediate knockout phase like this, there is no room for error, said Frei. We have to be able to bring a result to the table right away to move on to the next round.”
As admirable as their lack of progress is, no one can blame the Sounders for dreaming of taking on Real Madrid a bit. While their sharpness and cohesion may be lacking on Saturday, their motivation will not be.
“If we find ourselves advancing, it’s an incredible opportunity,” said Frei, who has lined out twice against Los Blancos in exhibitions. “But they’re friendly, right?” Frei said of these games.
“For an MLS team to have the opportunity to play against arguably the best team in the world for something meaningful would be a privilege.”
Doug McIntyre is a football writer for FOX Sports. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a writer for ESPN and Yahoo Sports and has covered the US men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Follow him on Twitter @By Doug McIntyre.
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