Sporting Kansas City braced for the task ahead tonight months ago. Cruz Azul posed a significant threat well before it compiled a nine-match unbeaten run to climb to the top of the Liga MX table. This match – the precious first leg in the midst of Blue Hell – always felt like the critical component in Sporting’s pursuit of a place in the semifinals.
A high-profile date with one of the top sides in the region (8:00p.m. ET, FOX Sports 2) is exactly the sort of challenge Sporting craves. There is no contentment, no easing off after lifting MLS Cup in December. The next title is the most important one. And this particular championship holds a special appeal.
“We are taking CONCACAF Champions League very seriously,” Sporting midfielder Graham Zusi said during the MLS media and marketing tour last month. “We want to be the first MLS team to win it. Simple as that.”
Nothing is clear cut in this competition, not even for Sporting. The professional run through the group stage – two wins away from home, two draws at Sporting Park – placed Peter Vermes’ side in this position. This group will deploy its high-pressure, 4-3-3 setup in a bid to tame and unsettle Mexico’s best side at the moment, a cohesive unit that combines defensive solidity with neat work in possession and ruthlessness in the final third.
Cruz Azul has spent the past two-and-a-half months coaxing the best form out of Marco Fábian and purring to life under manager Luis Fernando Tena. Its match fitness and its stellar domestic form – the 3-0 defeat at Tigres on Saturday marked its first during the Clausura – increases the importance of extracting a good result at Sporting Park in the first leg to grab a foothold before the return leg at Estadio Azul next week.
“It’s a disadvantage [to play so early in our season],” Sporting captain Matt Besler said. “We see it every year with MLS teams. But it’s something I think our team is ready for. We feel like we have a very big homefield advantage. We feel like the atmosphere we play at and the style we play when we’re at home is something that they have not seen. We’re excited to play. Hopefully, we can get a really good result in the first leg at home.”
Despite its impressive away form during group play, Sporting will likely need to triumph on home soil to maintain a realistic chance of booking a semifinal place. The MLS Cup holders cannot afford to relent at any point during the first leg or suffer through another of those frustrating nights in front of goal. There is little, if any, margin for error.
“At any time, they can strike, they can score and they can win a game,” Besler said. “It’s probably not as much back and forth as a MLS game. There will be times where they’ll keep the ball or you’ll keep the ball, it seems like nothing is happening and then you tune off. Just like that, they go down and score, the game’s over and the chance is gone. So that’s probably going to be my biggest point of emphasis: you have to stay focused the entire game, no matter what is going on in the game.”
Focus isn’t a problem for Sporting, though. This group prepared for this night long ago. Now it must execute accordingly to keep its Champions League dreams alive and place itself in the proper position to ardently pursue yet another title.