The 2023 season for the Seattle Sounders isn’t starting off like any other MLS campaign to date.
This year, the Sounders get an opportunity at the unprecedented, starting on Feb. 4 (9:30 a.m. PT | FS2, FOX Deportes) when the club kicks off its first match at the 2022 FIFA Club World Cup in Morocoo. As last year’s Concacaf Champions League winners, Seattle are the first-ever Major League Soccer club to earn the Club World Cup berth that comes with winning the continental title.
Needless to say, it's a massive opportunity, both for the club and the league as a whole. With opening matchday fast approaching, here are the five storylines to watch ahead of the milestone event.
A historic first
Last year’s victorious CCL run was a landmark occasion on multiple fronts. But chief among the rewards for the accomplishment was this coveted Club World Cup spot, which pits Seattle in a tournament against all their fellow Champions League winners from federations around the world.
It’s an exclusive group, one no MLS club has ever been a part of before, on a stage where they’ll be competing against true members of the sports’ global elite with a trophy on the line. Regardless of the final result, a positive showing would certainly turn heads, given the intrigue in finding out how an MLS club will fare against this competition.
All eyes on Al Ahly-Auckland City
The tournament actually kicks off on Feb. 1, when Egyptian powerhouse Al Ahly (Africa runner-up) face off against New Zealand’s Auckland City (Oceania winner). The winner of that matchup will advance, where the Sounders will be awaiting as their Second Round opponent.
That means that Sounders fans should be keeping close tabs on that Feb. 1 matchup between two potential opponents that would each be formidable adversaries. Al Ahly are a legitimate powerhouse in the Egyptian Premier League and in Africa, with a record 42 league titles. They’ll be looking to avoid an upset from an Auckland City side that will be considered the underdog, but will also be playing with nothing to lose.
Aside from that, it’s a good chance to scout out the club that Seattle will have to best to stay in Morocco.
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A match against Real Madrid? It’s possible
The competitors in the Club World Cup include the UEFA Champions League winner, which is always one of the best clubs in the world by definition. This year, the UEFA representative is Spanish giant Real Madrid – a pretty notable name that you might have heard previously.
As the bracket worked out, a win in Seattle’s first match against either Al Ahly or Auckland City, and a semifinal matchup would await against the perennial La Liga powerhouse.
A matchup with Real Madrid, of course, would present easily the most daunting opponent the Sounders have ever faced. The reigning UCL winners have won this competition four times and boast one of the most expensive, star-studded rosters on the planet. But with adversity comes opportunity and you never know what might happen over the course of 90 minutes.
João Paulo returns, Héber arrives
The pre-tournament preparations have also allowed Head Coach Brian Schmetzer to start integrating a group that features two significant additions – one returning, and one arriving.
Brazilian midfielder João Paulo has been training with the club during preseason as he readies to make his return to the field. The 31-year-old standout sustained a torn ACL in last year’s CCL Final, missing the rest of the season. It remains to be seen if he’ll be cleared in time for the Club World Cup matches, but if he is, it could provide a massive boost.
Along with João Paulo, Seattle are also integrating their biggest offseason arrival: Brazilian forward Héber, who was acquired in a trade with New York City FC in December. A proven MLS striker, Héber was consistently productive during his time in the Eastern Conference, putting up 24 goals in 70 league appearances. With a jam-packed schedule coming up in 2023, Héber is in line for a lot of minutes, so this will provide a good first look at how he’s meshing with the group.
HIGHLIGHTS: Seattle Sounders FC vs Hammarby IF | January 28, 2023
Enjoying the moment
All told, Seattle’s participation in this tournament makes this among the more unique preseasons the club has experienced. In a time of year that’s usually reserved for inter-squad scrimmages or closed-door fixtures against other MLS clubs, the Sounders are preparing for one of the world’s most prestigious tournaments.
The magnitude of that shouldn’t be taken for granted, and it’s a moment that should be fully soaked in, by the players and staff, as well as the fanbase. With the club celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2024, it's fitting that the Sounders will begin this season by taking a shot at making history against the best clubs on the planet.