Seattle Sounders at Club America: Reach for New Heights

The Seattle Sounders play at historic Estadio Azteca tonight in the final leg of their quarterfinal series with Liga MX titan Club America.

Last week’s 2-2 draw, through a hellluva thrilling game, puts us in quite the pickle. As Sigi said, win and we’re through. But winning at Azteca is hard.

Estadio Azteca, the only stadium to host two World Cup Finals, is the 3rd largest in the world. It swells to nearly 100,000 passionate fans who support their clubs with “gusto.” Outside magazine explored the unique experience of playing at Azteca back in 2012 after the USMNT’s first win there:

Azteca’s fans have been know to launch beers, bags of vomit, and ziplocs of urine at players. For their own safety, Mexican police routinely escort American fans out of the stadium. It’s rare for American broadcasters to leave Azteca not covered in alcohol.

Aside from the psychological and emotional toll of playing in such a crucible comes the physical crush of playing at altitude. At an elevation of 7,349 feet, Estadio Azteca tests the fittest athletes. Us Americans crow about Denver and Mile High Stadium at its mere altitude of 5,280. Azteca is up another 2,000 feet and the increase starts to make an exponential difference. Again from Outside:

As anyone who’s ever gone from sea level to a couple thousand feet up knows, it’s kind of a shocking adjustment. It’s harder to get oxygen into your lungs, making it harder to breathe and even harder to catch your breath. And that’s when you’re just walking around, not playing a high-level soccer game for an hour-and-a-half.

It takes about a week to acclimatize to high altitude, getting over any initial illness/shock. And that’s usually the most training-time visiting teams get before playing. But it requires something like 104-times that to actually get to your regular-functioning level.

“It takes usually about two years of living in altitude to become accustomed to it,” Baysden said, “while the Mexican athletes don’t know any different.” Real, scientific home-field advantage.

I have spent time in Peru at high altitude. Cusco and Puno are at the absurd elevations of 11,152 feet and 12,556 feet, respectively. My first time in Cusco, I was not acclimated at all, flying straight form Lima’s sea-level to the Incan capital and the first few days I was wrecked: pounding headaches, insomnia, heaving. I was much better on my second visit and even Puno didn’t bother me, though Mrs. Raving Green was laid out in bed and even needed an oxygen machine (though she looked so cute with the little plastic nose tubes). Hiking in Arequipa, at 7,740 feet elevation, comparable to Azteca, kicked my butt. I can barely begin to understand how difficult it will be for a preseason-form Seattle to go the full 90.

Long story short: The Sounders are in for a doozy.

Bold Prediction: Bad news here, Club America is looking to field a much stronger lineup than what we saw in Sodo. Starting Keeper Moises Munoz is getting healthy and aDario Benedetto is finally healthy and could replace Quintero up top. And even though assists master Rubens Sambueza dislocated his shoulder, he may very well go too.

Last week was probably the only CCL Knockout game in Sodo for 5 years. I was in the stands back in April 2013 for the semifinals against Santos Laguna, and since we didn’t qualify for CCL Group Stage last season, the next time we could play in the knockout round is 2018. That’s why despite tangling with this dreaded forever cold, I attended last week’s game. If you live in Seattle and have caught the upper-respiratory-and-general-feeling-like-crappiness bug, I empathize. But throbbing congestion and all, I wasn’t missing a CCL Knockout game. The chances at Knockout games are few and far between for parity-riddled MLS clubs, even one as consistent as Seattle. Unfortunately, the ride ends here.

It is huge for this club just to play at Azteca. We are further composing the legend of the Sounders with matches like tonight’s. We do not need a victory, just a respectable showing. Do I want a victory? Sure, but realistically… I see a 3-1 America win with Dempsey scoring another set piece poem. The Rave Green playing well at Azteca is huge for this club as it continue its ascent as a power in the Americas.

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