Seattle Sounders defender Alex Roldan sank to the turf, head in hands in disappointment after inadvertently deflecting Mohamed Afsha’s volley past goalkeeper Stefan Frei.
The goal, credited to Afsha, was enough to give Al Ahly the win and see them advance to the semifinal of the FIFA Club World Cup at the Sounders expense—with the added reward of a matchup against storied European champions, Real Madrid.
As referee Anthony Taylor blew the final whistle, the players and staff on Al Ahly’s bench streamed onto the pitch in celebration. The crowd erupted, with the most concentrated celebrations coming from a group of hardcore Ahly supporters behind one of the goals.
It was as if a cup final had been won, while Roldan’s reaction was as if one had been lost. Outside of the European soccer bubble, maybe this tournament means something after all.
It was certainly meaningful for Seattle Sounders, and arguably for American soccer more generally. The club from Major League Soccer (MLS) was making history simply by being in Morocco for this tournament, becoming the first team from the United States to play in the Club World Cup.
So what did the eventual defeat mean, if anything?
It was difficult to ascertain the expectations for Seattle heading into this game in such unfamiliar territory.
On the one hand, the strength of Al Ahly as a team and the size of Al Ahly as a club may have been underestimated in some quarters, even if not by the Sounders themselves.
Ahly boast a record 42 Egyptian Premier League titles and a record 10 CAF [African] Champions League triumphs. This success domestically and continentally sees them widely considered one of the biggest and best teams in Africa, arguably the biggest and best.
On the other hand, the Sounders themselves are a decent outfit and didn’t need to go into this game with any sense of inferiority, at least in terms of the quality of their team and players.
Seattle showed as much in the first half in Tangier when they were the better of the two sides. That in itself was a positive, and somewhat surprising given the form the Egyptians have been in lately. Ahly have not lost since August 2022 in all competitions, and during that time they have won 18 games and drawn five.
Big chances in terms of shots on goal were few and far between, but the Sounders did have opportunities to create openings, resulting in several corners and set pieces. By the end of the game, Brian Schmetzer’s side had outshot their opponents 12-9 in total, and had six shots in the box to Ahly’s two.
The winning goal was as unlucky for the Sounders as it was joyous for Al Ahly.
Afsha hit the bar with an attempt from outside the area, and saw the ball eventually return to his feet following a half clearance from João Paulo. Afsha’s subsequent volley wasn’t hit well but in trying to block the shot, Alex Roldan diverted it past Frei.
“It was an even game,” said Schmetzer. “I thought the teams were good in moments, but sometimes that’s the game.
“We make one little half a mistake, one little error, give the ball away in that part of the field, they hit the crossbar, we had a chance to clear it, it drops to [Afsha] and he shoots. Alex tries to block it and it goes in the goal.
“It’s really unfortunate after all the effort the players put in.”
The Sounders showed they can be competitive at this level. There was no disgrace in going out to an Al Ahly team who have the second most appearances in the history of this tournament, and over the years have defeated teams such as Club America, Palmeiras, and Monterrey.
Some of the Sounders’ rustiness in the final third, plus the fact they conceded a goal late in the game, will be put down to it still being their pre-season, but the plays that led to the chance for the goal came from players fresh off the bench, João Paulo and promising 19-year-old midfielder Danny Leyva.
Even if the timing of the game did play a part, Schmetzer didn’t want to use it as an excuse.
“We don’t make excuses,” he said. “They’re in a good run form in their league and they’re in midseason almost, so that was an advantage for them but we had certain advantages as well.
“I thought we were well organised and disciplined in moments. Again it was just that goal, just sent them through and it was unfortunate.”
Seattle could be criticised for not going all out for the win within the 90 minutes, and only bringing on attacking reinforcements late in the game. Schmetzer did hint in his post-match interview that he was hoping for extra time.
The additions of Heber and Fredy Montero may have been more effective earlier in the second half as once Ahly scored, bringing them both on in added time seemed futile.
Regardless, the fact there is even an idea the Sounders, could, maybe should have got something more from this game, indicates they and other American clubs have a place at this table in intercontinental competition, especially as the Sounders are not even considered among the best teams in MLS at this moment.
Given the nature of the goal and the overall balance of the game, they weren’t necessarily beaten by the better team on the day, but at the same time, there is no shame in losing to a huge, in-form club such as Al Ahly.
It was a defeat for Seattle, but it was encouraging that teams from the United States can be competitive at this level and on this stage, and maybe the Sounders’ performance will give belief to American clubs in future intercontinental competitions.