The Sounders are a championship series win away from becoming the first American team to reach the FIFA Club World Cup by winning CONCACAF Champions League. The two-leg final begins in Mexico city against Pumas on Wednesday,and concludes on Wednesday May 4 at Lumen Field in Seattle.
Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey joined Fox 13 Sports Director Aaron Levine on "Seattle Sports Live" Sunday night to discuss how big an opportunity this is for the franchise.
Aaron: Garth, I know this is a massive couple of weeks for the Sounders in the finals of CONCACAF Champions League. Do you think everyone out there grasps how big this is? And if not, how much of that might be because there are not similar events like this for other pro teams in the country?
Lagerwey: You know, look, it is unique. I mean, when we play our sports championships in America, we play the Super Bowl, we play the World Series. But soccer actually has a World Series. If you went MLS, then you go and play against your part of the world, you play in CONCACAF, which is the North Pole to the Panama Canal and everything in between. And If you win that, you go to the Club World Cup. So it is this progression of trying to be the best you can and then playing against the best from all over North and Central America. And then if we're able to advance to play the best from all over the world, it's an exciting opportunity for us.
Aaron: For those out there who don't want to take the time to understand all of it, how much of an eye opener would it be if all of a sudden the Sounders are playing, say, a Real Madrid on the world stage in a match that means something instead of a friendly or an exhibition?
Lagerwey: You know, look, I think we'd have to be able to wait and see and see how folks reacted to it. But obviously, for us, it'd be massive. I mean, this is a chance at immortality for us. No American team has ever won Champions League, and sort of have this opportunity. And, you know, potentially to do it in front of a sold out Lumen Field, you know, to have just a terrific crowd -- that's a real opportunity for us on May 4.
Aaron: Give me your expectations for what we're going to see in this series.
Lagerwey: I think it's gonna be extremely hard fought, I think the teams are well matched. You know, I think there's an element of a war of attrition, where mistakes are going to be punished. And, you know, ultimately, the team that wants it a little bit more, hopefully can prevail. But we've been very focused in Champions League. We've won every series by more than one goal. And I think this one will be the toughest one so far. I think Pumas already announced they've sold north of 60,000 tickets to the first leg of the of the Champions League final coming up on Wednesday. And, you know, hopefully we can survive down there and come back home with a real chance to win the thing.
Aaron: Obviously last night's MLS match at San Jose was disappointing, especially after taking a two goal lead. But what kind of effect can a match like that have going into a week like this? Will it be a wake-up call, which would be a positive thing, or something that can really affect the team in a negative way?
Lagerwey: I don’t think it means much of anything. You know, I think if you looked at our team and how we played, we were actually pretty dominant through the first 60 minutes and we took our foot off the pedal a little bit. And look, it's understandable. Our guys are looking ahead. And you know, we got punished for it. And that's okay. Honestly, you know, we're disappointed that that was the result. But the focus has always been on Champions League, you know. This is something again, that's historic, no one's ever done. And you have to be willing to make some sacrifices along the way, in order to preserve your focus on Champions League. And that's how we message the guys. And you know, that's why we have this incredible opportunity.
Aaron: I know the mantra of this club is that you want to win everything across all competitions. It's tough having to manage an MLS season and Champions League at the same time. From one to 10, how would you evaluate the way this team has managed playing time up to this point?
Lagerwey: I think we've done a good job of rotating the roster. And when you look at who's available, you know, we've played I think, almost 15 games already while most MLS teams have played, you know, eight or nine at this point, because we've had the addition of the six Champions League games now with two more to come. You know, it's notoriously difficult to get through preseason and into the early stages completely healthy. And we will have – as a credit to our sports performance staff and medical staff - we will have a full complement of players available for selection for the Champions League Final and that's an indication to me that we've managed (the roster) very well.
Aaron: So I'd say from one to 10, you probably give it a 10 physically heading into one of the biggest matches in club history?
Lagerwey: Yes, I mean, we've done everything we can, you know, there are no regrets. There are no second guesses. We're here, we're ready. And now we're gonna go win.
Aaron: So far, the Sounders have basically survived the road leg of the series, then dominated the home game. Is that what they're going to try to do this week in Mexico - kind of survive, maybe pick up a tie or least a goal or two on the road?
Lagerwey: I think it's gonna be a difficult match down there. You know that it's going to be a hostile crowd. It's going to be a huge crowd. It's at altitude, you know, I think there's a whole bunch of angles that make it a very difficult game. And, you know, look, we obviously want to play the best soccer we can. And when we play at a high level, I think we score most of the time. So it'd be helpful to grab an away goal but most importantly, keep it close. Obviously, we'll try to win the game. That's always the objective – coach Schmetzer never, never wavered from that. And that message is really simple and really translatable: You know, go win the game and let the chips fall where they may, you know, we can figure the rest out.
Aaron: I've got to give a shoutout to the U-17 Sounders Academy, winning Generation Adidas for the second time this past week, the most prestigious event in North America. What does that say about the growth of this club from the bottom up?
Lagerwey: You know, I like to think that we're seven or eight years in I guess it's my eighth year, we're pretty fully integrated. We're hitting on all cylinders. We're hitting at the First Team, we're hitting on the Second Team, we're hitting on the Youth Academy and you know, look, that is the third championship now for our player development program. And we've put more than half a dozen players now in the First Team over the last couple of years. So that's really exciting. It's great progress and hopefully shows that the next generation of Sounders is in house already.
Aaron: Finally, we've done all we can tonight to emphasize the importance of the next couple of weeks for this franchise. What would your lasting message be to Sounders fans out there, supporters out there, maybe even to the casual fans who have never been to a match before about the importance of showing up on May 4?
Lagerwey: The one thing we haven't touched on yet, Aaron, is this is the last chance to impress FIFA. FIFA is the body that governs soccer in the world. And the United States is going to host along with Mexico and Canada the World Cup in 2026. And this is the last opportunity, the last international soccer event, for the Pacific Northwest and the city of Seattle, the Seattle community, to show FIFA that we deserve to be a host for some of those World Cup games. And that would be a massive economic boon to Seattle. It would be an incredible boost to the culture of the city. And you know, by buying a ticket on May 4, you are coming out supporting not just the Sounders but the entire community and, you know, you could potentially witness a once in a lifetime event, because that's how that's how rare this is. You know, it's something that's literally never been done and, you know, hard things are worth doing. And this has been really, really hard. It's been a couple of years of work to get to this position. And now to have an opportunity is really exciting. And we're really looking forward to the fans filling the building on May 4.