Sporting Kansas City spent much of the past few years establishing its identity as a purveyor of a high-pressure, 4-3-3 system designed to expose the opposition and wrest control of the game from the outset.
The approach continues to yield domestic results, but it remains completely untested in the exacting and particular confines of the CONCACAF Champions League. Few teams within the region pursue the game as ardently as Sporting does. Many of them, however, understand how to blunt the effectiveness of such tactics.
It presents a rather difficult conundrum for Sporting manager Peter Vermes to solve as he guides his charges through perhaps the most interesting voyage of any side in this 24-team tournament. Sporting reached this point by harrying its adversaries and using the turnovers created to prompt its own dominance over the game. Yet those same ideals – as evidenced in New York’s counterattacking masterclass over the weekend – also leave the side quite exposed at points when the resulting attacks yield errant shots or stray passes and present a potentially fatal problem as the margins shrink in international competition.
“I think, in some respects, it’s going to be challenging for us and, hopefully, challenging for the other teams,” Vermes said. “It’s going to be how we’re able to adapt and adjust both game-to-game and game-within-the-game. And that’s going to be the fun thing, at least from a managing perspective, how we’re able to read the game, try to get that information and change it on the field as it goes.”
Vermes enters this competition with a relatively small contingent of players familiar with the peculiarities ahead. Matt Besler, Benny Feilhaber and Graham Zusi delved into similar, if more tense, circumstances with the U.S. national team, but none of these players can point to an experience comparable to the circuitous journey – including a three-hour bus ride after landing in Nicaragua – required to tackle Real Estelí tonight (10:00p.m. ET, FOX Soccer Plus).
Most players grasp toward the familiar amid uncertainty, but Sporting must contemplate exactly how much regularity it wishes to maintain against an unknown and usually unsuccessful opponent on foreign soil. Zusi said he and his teammates understand their system must evolve a bit here and there in order to facilitate their Champions League ambitions.
“It’s a bit different,” Zusi said. “It’s probably something they don’t see too often. We’ll probably have to adjust a bit home and away, but we’ll deal with that when it comes.”
That juncture will arrive by the end of the month when Sporting travels to Tegucigalpa to face Honduran giants Olimpia. It looks like the watershed moment in Group 2, the moment when the identity of the lone quarterfinalist will emerge. And Sporting – teeming with ambition in its first excursion into the Champions League – believes it can amend its ways and lean on its strengths in order to claim that berth.
“Sporting Kansas City has a very technical way of playing,” Sporting defender Aurélien Collin said. “Sometimes, we can bring physics and power to the game. We’re going to be able to adapt ourselves to any kind of game. We just have to be as focused as we are in the league and then we’ll see.”
Similar sentiments apply to the other four MLS sides involved – including Montréal and San Jose, drawn together in Group 4 and primed to commence their two-game tussle for a quarterfinal berth tonight at Stade Saputo (8:00p.m. ET, FOX Soccer Plus) – and the quartet of Mexican entrants. Diligence and focus remain the primary hindrances for these clubs as they juggle their commitments and their goals on two fronts as they strive to secure top spot in their groups.
Mexico, as usual, enters the competition as a considerable favorite to produce a ninth consecutive winner. Monterrey missed out on a chance to chase its fourth straight title after its failure to qualify, but Club América and Cruz Azul possess the depth and the top-end quality to shoulder the burden. Club Tijuana raised questions about its credentials with a 0-0 draw at Luis Ángel Firpo to open Group 7 play in San Salvador on Tuesday night, while Toluca reinforced its potential strength with a perfunctory 3-1 home victory over AIA Caledonia to start its excursion through Group 6.
If those sides prefer to follow the route blazed by Guadalajara and Tigres last year and place their fates in the hands of reserves, then the penchant for shocks could continue. América and Cruz Azul cannot afford to slip with Alajuelense and Herediano in their respective groups, though the Costa Rican sides do not enter this tournament at the peak of their powers. Peril also looms for LA Galaxy (drawn into Group 8 with Costa Rican side Cartaginés), Houston (tasked with a slippery trip to face Árabe Unido in Panama to close out Group 1) and Sporting Kansas City if they do not adopt the proper deportment.
On that count, Sporting has already embraced the Champions League tests ahead. It is not a scenario where standard operating procedures always produce the best results. And the ability to recognize the possible concern before it exacts a potentially critical toll represents a fine first step forward as Sporting attempts to transition its domestic success into the international realm.