Despite needing a win to stay in the CONCACAF Champions League Wednesday, Sunday’s league match against Sporting Kansas City likely will take priority for the Sounders’ top players.
The Sounders have claimed the 2015 Cascadia Cup, but one more match against a Pacific Northwest rival remains on the docket. Seattle hosts the Vancouver Whitecaps Wednesday at 7 p.m. in the CONCACAF Champions League. Unless the Sounders win, they will not advance to the knockout stages of the competition next spring.
In terms of who is likely to play, there is greater uncertainty than Seattle’s previous three Champions League matches. Previously, the Sounders had been a struggling side plagued with injuries and disciplinary suspensions, and were below the red line looking up at the MLS playoffs. The result was that many players who did not see regular first-team minutes were fielded for CCL play to save the team’s stars for league matches.
With a 1-1-1 record in Group F, Seattle can punch its ticket to the round of eight only if they beat the Whitecaps. Doing so would mean the Sounders would finish with seven points and own the head-to-head tiebreaker with Vancouver (the only group team capable of reaching seven points when they travel to Honduras to face C.D. Olimpia Oct. 22).
With that in mind, it might seem like a power lineup might on the table, with the likes of Clint Dempsey, Nelson Valdez, Andreas Ivanschitz and Obafemi Martins in the mix for the 18-man roster. But the reality is that the Sounders will likely start a much more conservative lineup.
Sunday’s road match against Sporting Kansas City holds a great deal of Seattle’s attention. For all the public talk of taking things one match at a time, the fact is that a win Sunday would take three points away from a Sporting KC team that sits just below Seattle in the Western Conference and could move Seattle into second place in the west, depending on other results.
The Champions League, by comparison, just isn’t that high a priority.
It’s not hard to understand why. Unlike in UEFA, where teams are guaranteed to make €12 million just for qualifying to the group stages and the champion is earns a mind-boggling €50 million—minimum—for their victory, CONCACAF’s Champions League winners were rumored to make around $5 million in 2013, and the purse can’t have raised much since then.
Clint Dempsey is guaranteed to make $4.6 million with the Sounders this season, according to the MLS Players Union’s most recent salary release. When the total prize will only compensate your highest-paid player, you’re probably not in it for the money. Unless, of course, the team has been breaking the huddle all this time with a cry of “Payday for Dempsey!”
If the Sounders aren’t interested in the tournament for its economic incentives, then the remaining obvious motivators would be prestige or international respect. GM Garth Lagerway mentioned when he was hired by the club that it was focused on “working on a global scale to build the club,” and it’s true that impressive runs in the competition can do much to raise the estimation of MLS clubs. But the Sounders aren’t exactly an unknown entity.
EA Sports recently announced that the Clink was going to be added to FIFA 16, the company’s soccer video game franchise. The Sounders’ home ground, along with Vancouver’s BC Place Stadium, are the only two MLS stadiums included in the game. While not exactly the sort of international revelation that heralds the creation of a global powerhouse, the electronic inclusion (e-nclusion?) of Seattle’s domain into the most popular entertainment product in the soccer world is an indicator that the club is achieving the brand awareness that they’re after.
A brand that could certainly be harmed by failing to make the MLS playoffs for the first time in the club’s history by tripping up in the final four games of the regular season.
The MLS is Seattle’s bread and butter; the Champions League is pâté. It tastes nice, and looks impressive in a buffet, but it’s tougher to eat if you drop the bread entirely while reaching for it.
While both teams will enter Wednesday’s match with a mind toward victory, the main course probably won’t be served until Sunday.
Still, Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid kept the illusion of mystery around his plans for Wednesday’s starters.
“That’s for me to know, and for you guys to find out,” said Schmid Tuesday.
Dempsey wasn’t the only seven-figure number on Seattle’s payroll. Fellow striker Obafemi Martins is making a cool $3 million this year, and new DP Nelson Valdez will make $1.2 million.
Other recent signings also command a high salary. Român Torres, recently ruled out for the rest of the season, will make more than $500k, while Erik Friberg and Andreas Ivanschitz will both earn just more than $200k.