The CONCACAF Champions League kicked off this week with three MLS teams attempting to win the international trophy. Sporting Kansas City played on Wednesday night against Cruz Azul, the club currently in first place of the Liga MX of Mexico. It was SKC who came out victorious from the first round, a 1-0 win with the lone goal coming from right back Kevin Ellis.
The goal came in the 17th minute. It all started from a Claudio Bieler pass, finding an open Ellis on the left-attacking side of the pitch, the exact opposite from where he played most of the night. Ellis dance around one player, making a off-balanced shot that squeezed into the lower left corner of the goal. KC fans were loud in their support of Sporting, like always, but they were in full voice when Ellis scored. By the way, this is only Ellis’ fourth career start, and second of the season. He isn’t even considered the preferred starter, but he made the best of the opportunity.
Sporting only controlled the ball for 45% of the game, but allowed only two shots on goal during the entire night. They are the best defense in the league because they prevent attackers any space to make a shot. One of those shots on goals might have been in the net if not for the play of center back Ike Opara. A 54th minute Cruz Azul breakaway pulled SKC goalie Erik Kronberg from out of the net, leaving a gapping hole just asking for a shot. When Cruz Azul forward Mariano Pavone finally did attempt the shot, Opara had sprinted back into the mouth of the goal, preventing the would-be equalizer.
But Sporting didn’t let up on pressure either. They were a few opportunities that they missed. The 68th minute saw Graham Zusi try to blast one in from 20 yards out, but the crossbar just wouldn’t get out of the way.
Sporting KC have been preparing for the match during the entire course of the offseason. Coach Peter Vermes knows that to get through this series, and the weekend MLS games, his players needed to be at a level of ridiculous fitness. They have to play 5 games in 15 days! There is no rougher opening to a season, and it’s hardly an award for winning the 2013 MLS Cup. Vermes wants to get deep in the CCL, but he may have to sacrifice a few points in MLS play to achieve his goal. Sporting played last Saturday with a suboptimal starting XI because they were preparing for the match with Cruz Azul.
Cruz Azul is currently the top team in Mexico. They sit at the top of the Liga MX standings, a full 3 points ahead of the next club. They are also the most successful club in CCL history: five wins in seven CCL Finals. The last time they made it to the last game was in 1997, when they got a 5-3 win over the Los Angeles Galaxy, who were only in their second year of existence.
Both teams will meet next week in Mexico City. A draw or a loss with a -1 goal differential will let Sporting KC advance to the next round. In the meantime though, SKC will have to face the Houston Dynamo, a team that dominated the New England Revolution in MLS Week 1.