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MLS coaches dip into club reservoirs
This isn’t a novelty. After all, every club faces choices in continental tournament, but late-season MLS fixtures carry additional weight -- not mathematically, but psychologically -- with the postseason on the horizon. Champions League matches also increase in importance -- again, in terms of perception, not points -- as the group stage winds to a close and the quarterfinal places hang in the balance.
Most of the time, domestic aspirations trump international objectives for MLS clubs, for good or ill. And that’s why most times, the lineups MLS sides toss out put the burden on the reserves in what are surprisingly difficult matches. The starters largely sit on the bench or watch from home. Champions League results -- good, bad or indifferent -- take a backseat.
It’s a conservative approach that often yields the desired benefits, but it presents ample risks given the increasingly fraught nature of the group stage. MLS and Liga MX clubs do not breeze through this compressed group format. Club América, Club Tijuana, Houston, Montréal and San Jose have already dropped points away from home. By slipping up on their travels, these sides narrowed their room for error as the group stage progressed.
Sporting Kansas City reaped the benefits of a more aggressive deportment in its first two Champions League encounters. Sporting manager Peter Vermes assessed the schedule -- two away dates at Real Estelí and Olimpia to open group play, two home affairs at Sporting Park to close it -- and decided to field a healthy number of starters in both matches.
The gambit worked. Vermes opted for a blended side in the easier of the two fixtures in Nicaragua. He selected regular starters Aurélien Collin, Mechack Jérôme and Seth Sinovic to ensure a solid defensive foundation and used Benny Feilhaber and Oriol Rosell in central midfield to establish the necessary rhythm in possession. A straightforward 2-0 victory over Estelí put Sporting in a position to assert control over Group 2 with a triumph in Honduras two weeks later. Vermes turned to his starters -- minus the hindered Matt Besler and the rested Jimmy Nielsen -- to procure an identical result in the more difficult fixture.
By taking care of business in the first two matches without suffering any ill effects in MLS play (victories followed those midweek triumphs), Sporting now possesses the flexibility to alter its lineup accordingly for Real Esteli's visit to Sporting Park (live, FOX Soccer Plus, Tuesday, 8 p.m. ET). Four points over the next two matches -- a manageable feat on home soil -- will guarantee a berth in the next round. With that goal in mind, Vermes can chop and change accordingly to ensure he wrings out the necessary results without hampering his side in its quest to hold off Montréal and New York in the quest to finish atop the Eastern Conference.
Impact coach Marco Schällibaum showed the perils of making a misstep or two by naming Marco Di Vaio and Alessandro Nesta in his travel party for the cross-continental trip to San Jose (live, FOX Sports 2, Tuesday, 10 p.m. ET). Schällibaum would have preferred to leave both veterans behind for this lengthy journey squeezed between two home matches in league play (including a critical clash with Vancouver on Saturday), but the 1-0 defeat at Heredia last month left him with little choice in the match. Any flexibility to leave key performers behind dissipated in Guatemala City. Only victories against the Earthquakes – an outfit that has shown only casual interest in the competition to date – and Heredia will see the Impact through to the quarterfinal stage.
LA Galaxy manager Bruce Arena can chart his own course tomorrow night when Isidro Metapán visits the StubHub Center (live, FOX Sports 2, Wednesday, 10:00 p.m. ET). Arena -- like Houston manager Dominic Kinnear, another frequent Champions League participant -- usually finds a way to churn out results with the right mix of players. The inverse schedule faced by the Galaxy -- two home matches followed by trips to San José and San Salvador -- poses some concerns, but a second consecutive home victory will place the Galaxy in good position to return to the quarterfinals and provide additional operating room to chase a higher playoff seed in domestic play.
As Arena ponders his team selection for Wednesday night and wonders how to use his resources appropriately, he can look to Sporting Kansas City to provide a template. There are different ways to meander through the Champions League gauntlet successfully. Sporting's path just shows the balance is easier to maintain with some prudent ambition along the way.
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