Sporting Kansas City must survive Saprissa trip to advance in CONCACAF Champions League
The familiar term used to describe the home of Deportivo Saprissa isn’t a misnomer. Estadio Ricardo Saprissa Aymá earned its nickname through the club’s nickname and the sheer hostility displayed toward the opposition within its bounds. It is truly The Monster’s Cave, a sort of deep and dark place where opposing teams cower more often than not and relish the rare opportunity to somehow emerge with a positive result in their favor.
Sporting Kansas City must descend into the catacombs tonight and pull off the feat in order to secure a second consecutive berth in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals (10:00p.m. ET, FOX Soccer Plus, FOX Soccer 2GO). It is, suffice it to say, not a particular easy assignment.
The reigning MLS Cup champions at least enter the match with the benefit of some modest latitude. Sporting will progress with a victory, a draw, a one-goal defeat or a two-goal setback with two or more goals scored. The list of direct routes to the last eight is comprehensive, but it does not make the task any easier.
“Obviously, this is a big match,” Sporting Kansas City manager Peter Vermes told the club’s official website. “It’s for whoever is going to go through the group at the end of the day. We have the ability to get a tie and move on, but, at the end of the day, we have to go play. We have to go play. We have to try to win. We can’t give them anything because they are a very good team. They’re playing at home. I’m sure they’re going to come with a very, very aggressive mentality. We have to come and play for this result.”
The task is made even more difficult by the competing priorities at the sharp end of the MLS campaign. Vermes packed up most of his squad for the 2,100-mile journey, but he also understands a crunch league clash against New York awaits on Sunday at Sporting Park. His side must somehow figure out a way to navigate through both assignments in order to reach the quarterfinals and sidestep a berth in the Knockout Round next week.
CONCACAF CHAMPIONS LEAGUE QUARTERFINAL SEEDINGS (AS OF OCT. 23)
|1.||D.C. United (USA)*
||4-0-0 (12 pts.)
|2.||Club América (MEX)*
||3-0-1 (10 pts.)
||3-0-1 (10 pts.)
|4.||Montréal Impact (CAN)*
||3-0-1 (10 pts.)||+3|
||3-1-0 (9 pts.)
||3-1-0 (9 pts.)||+7|
|7.||Sporting Kansas City (USA)^||2-0-1 (7 pts.) - one game left||+5|
|8.||Alajuelense (CRC)*||1-0-3 (6 pts)
It is a prickly mission to balance those competing demands without the suspended Graham Zusi (caution accumulation), but the domestic bans facing Jorge Claros and Igor Juliao this weekend at least provide two unencumbered players for the tie. There are no excuses, though. Sporting must simply find a way to shoulder the load in order to thrive on two fronts, according to captain Matt Besler.
“It's two huge games this week,” Besler told MLSsoccer.com this week. “Hopefully, there's a couple more after that. Everyone says that every single game in this league is big, and that's true, but we're literally playing for everything in two games this week. I think as a player, you've got to be ready, but you can also be excited to play in these types of games.”
Significant rewards loom if Sporting can somehow transfer its excitement into the sort of coherent and effective display required to repeat the 3-1 victory over Saprissa at Sporting Park on Sept. 18. If Sporting can somehow manage to emerge from Costa Rica with a result, then it will claim a top-four seed and play fellow MLS side Montréal Impact in the quarterfinals next year. A draw or a narrow defeat will see Sporting confront Liga MX leaders Club América as the seventh seed instead.
Those permutations matter in the long term as Sporting plots its path to ultimate glory, but they do not necessarily alter the ambitions at hand here. Sporting cannot afford to let its focus drift away from Saprissa – a team with five consecutive victories in its domestic league and a formidable history in this competition – to the potential rewards down the line. It is about going through first and foremost. Vermes might need to blend his lineup to adjust for the demands ahead, but the selected players must maintain their concentration diligently to cope with this particular challenge.
The Monster’s Cave isn’t the sort of place where a team can just stroll through to secure the desired result. It is down to Sporting to figure out a way to grapple with the demons and subdue them just enough to keep their Champions League campaign going through the start of next year.