The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the staff of The Blue Testament.
I am just going to say it: I do not want Sporting Kansas City to go far in the CONCACAF Champions League (CCL) that begins this Thursday evening against Liga MX’s Toluca FC at Sporting KC’s Children’s Mercy Park.
Yes, in an international competition that brings together some of the best teams in the sport and transcends cultural and political barriers from North America to the Caribbean and thru Central America unifying people in all the good ways that soccer does daily in communities across our own country, I want Sporting Kansas City’s run to be limited.
That statement sounds like I want Sporting Kansas City to lose, or worse, fail. But that’s not where I’m going. I’m not completely crazy.
Due to winning the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup in 2017, Sporting is in the 2019 CCL. It is a result of past success. Thus, there are four trophies up for grabs for Sporting Kansas City this season: CCL, the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, the Supporter’s Shield (for the best regular season record in MLS), and MLS Cup. Four opportunities for glory. It’s a target-rich environment. But we all know that focusing on too many targets is splitting up one’s efforts and focus.
Simply stated, winning MLS Cup should be the priority, shoving the CCL down at least one notch, if not two. Every year, Sporting Kansas City Manager Peter Vermes and the players repeatedly state that MLS Cup is the goal. The why lies in many areas.
Like for the athlete who is renowned and respected (even awed at) for being the best at something in their neighborhood or city or state, being the best in your immediate realm of influence – where hearts and minds are invested – means more. For example, sports fans in the United States pay more attention to an NBA team winning the league title than the US Olympic basketball team winning the gold medal. How many Olympic winning t-shirts are bought? How many collectors go after Olympic championship rings?
Unfortunately for the CCL, it is not the Olympics, or even an established competition in the minds of even many ardent soccer fans, and certainly not in the minds fringe fans in the United States (or Nebraska or Colorado or Kansas). It is likely the CCL is not even fully understood by the fringe. People don’t respect what they don’t understand. To even watch CCL matches – beyond attending the games – one would have stream Yahoosports.com or have access to the Spanish broadcast on Univision Deportes. There is no major English television source to spread the SKC gospel of success to surrounding areas where fans and possible academy players can be attracted. The results will likely be buried deep in any sports news outlet (or not even be mentioned). The final will likely get a bigger broadcast, but that is unknown at this point, which is, well, typical for CCL. All of Sporting KC’s MLS matches can be seen much easier through its television network. MLS games through the playoffs and MLS Cup are broadcasted on the ESPN and Fox Networks, as well as Univision. Cruel facts, but facts nonetheless.
Thus, for Sporting KC, winning the domestic MLS title has the biggest ripple effect in growing the club. More fans will be won and more prospective academy players will be wooed by an MLS Cup championship (against established rivals, not manufactured ones) than by winning the CCL.
It can still be argued that winning the CCL is a larger accomplishment than winning MLS Cup because the CCL pits the best teams in a broader region against each other in a cutthroat competition. In addition, winning the CCL will likely lure the region’s top players to Kansas City, enabling the club to increase in quality by supplementing the players that are and will be coming out of the academy. Both points are conceded.
However, the true measure of a club’s overall depth and quality is best gauged by the marathon competition for MLS Cup that runs from March through November 10 (the date of MLS Cup 2019), not the four rounds of home-and-away matches from February 19 through May 2 in CCL. An in-form club that avoids critical injuries will have a massive advantage in a tournament. It’s being good in the short term versus being good always.
Don’t take my word for it. After his Manchester City side had lost to Liverpool in the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals last April, yet were on the brink of winning the English Premier League title the next week, their famed manager Pep Guardiola said this:
And the most talented players from Central America and the Caribbean (and possibly South America and beyond) and their agents are smart enough to realize the difference too. Is winning the CCL and risking an MLS season possibly mired in injuries and eventual failure worth it? Failure in the day-to-day, in the league table, may be a larger deterrent to interested international players than winning the CCL may be an attraction. Winning MLS Cup (and a strong regular season that supports it) wins the exposure battle and the battle for the overall growth of the club.
When evaluating the assets and effort that must be put forth to win the CCL, the question must be asked… Is winning the CONCACAF Champions League worth it?
If Sporting KC make it to the CCL Final, they will have to play a combined 16 CCL and MLS games (8 & 8) in 71 days, or one game every 4.43 days. Those 16 games mean midweek CCL games in six of the first eight weeks with MLS games on the weekend. The physical wear on the body of stopping and starting, and twisting and turning, while running and sprinting up to 12 miles a match every 4.43 days would be immense. More so, the mental toil of enduring the emotional ups and downs of a cutthroat competition, all while knowing it is important to get a good start in MLS for the long haul, is a lot for even the best mentally conditioned athletes and the even the best staffs that must care for them. Add in the rigors of travel beyond the already challenging MLS travel schedule… No one would come out unscathed.
Manager Vermes has already been talking about having two squads of players to navigate the load. In other words, the best 11 may not be put on the field for the CCL. Could it be that Sporting also knows CCL is not the end-all-be-all?
One undeniable counterpoint is that Vermes and the Sporting brain trust have built the squad for such a burden. There is quality and depth like never before at each position. The additions of center forward Erik Hurtado, midfielder Kelyn Rowe, left back Rodney Wallace, and center back Botond Barath have bolstered those positions, despite strong players being jettisoned. However, that is on paper and in minds. How will they perform under pressure?
Because the pressure will be strong. As Sporting KC Manager Peter Vermes has reminded us, the inherent circumstances of the CCL are difficult to overcome: Toluca FC has played seven league matches already, whereas Sporting KC has played none, and there will be 8,750 feet of altitude to deal with when Vermes’ charges go to Mexico for Leg 2 on February 28th. Furthermore, Liga MX players are paid more on the whole than MLS players, and, tactically, Mexican teams often excel on the counter where, in this pundits’ mind, Sporting KC is vulnerable.
History here, too, is a factor. No MLS team has ever won the CCL in its current format. That does not mean Sporting should not try. Yet, the post-history of competing in the CCL is what is important to the bigger goal of winning MLS Cup and the correlative goal of performing well in the regular season. Here, MLS teams are vulnerable.
To markedly increase the odds of winning MLS Cup, a team must gain at least one home match in the playoffs through a top-four finish (preferably a top-two finish to gain a fuller home-field advantage) in their conference. Of the nine MLS teams that have made it to the CCL semifinals or final in the last eight years, no team has won MLS Cup that year. Three teams (Toronto FC 2018 and 2012 and FC Dallas 2017) didn’t even qualify for the MLS Cup playoffs that same season. Only one team earned a top-two seed: the 2018 New York Red Bulls, who won the Supporter’s Shield, but lost in the Eastern Conference Finals to eventual champions Atlanta United. Overall, teams that made it to the CCL semifinal or finals placed, on average, in 4.77th place in their MLS conference that same season. The cost of succeeding in the CCL hits on many levels.
Finally, prize money is provided by the CCL organizers to help defer teams’ costs and to motivate. The champion will take in $500,000, the runners-up $300,000, and the third and fourth place finishers $200,000. These amounts are significantly less than the likely $1,600,00 and $900,00 Sporting KC made, respectively, on the Dom Dwyer and Ike Opara trades.
The mild rewards of winning the CCL in exchange for the many-levels of cost… Peter Vermes wouldn’t even make that trade. The CONCACAF Champions League is a tantalizing carrot dangling in front of the ambition of human yearnings and salivating tongues desiring to eat and to drink from a pretty cup. But similar to the search for the Holy Grail, this is ultimately an odyssey for a much more modest cup than some believe.
So why put a side’s push for glory into the proverbial one basket of MLS Cup? All worthwhile organizations and fans push for glory. Sporting Kansas City and its vocal following are no exception. After all, it was The Cauldron that first prominently put forth the idea of “For the Glory of the City” back in the run to the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup title in 2012.
Now, a club altered version – “For Glory. For City.” adorns the new jersey for 2019. Essentially, pushing for MLS Cup glory is symbiotic to pushing for Supporter’s Shield glory as well. Play the kids and get others some good minutes in the U.S. Open Cup, and if things go well, push for that glory too. CCL is fourth in this cup race.
And think about this… Do we want the Chiefs to hog the all the glory of the city in their likely drive for the Super Bowl in the fall and see Sporting Kansas City ignored as they plod through the end of an average, or worse, MLS season? Or would we rather see downtown Kansas City alight in Chiefs red one week and Sporting blue the next like we did last fall as each fought to reach the pinnacle in their respective domestic leagues?
After four years of away, first-round playoff exits, Sporting Kansas City won the West and the top playoff seed and made it to the conference finals in the playoffs last season. That was progress. This year, the targeted trophy (and logical, realistic goal) should be MLS Cup. Once sustained and prominent success in MLS is established via that and past successes – winning the 2013 MLS Cup, the regular season conference title in 2011, 2012, 2018 (and 2019?), and playoff appearances for nine years straight – then it’s time to focus fully on the CONCACAF Champions League, or whatever inter-league or continental competition materializes.
Let Atlanta United win the 2019 CONCACAF Champions League. It’s part of their rush to spend big to win now DNA, a malady that has infected many young sports franchises. Then they can figure out where to go from there.
Come Thursday evening, Sporting KC should, of course, play to win… there’s no other way to play. Yes, I want SKC to get past Toluca in the CONCACAF Champions League Round of 16; that is enough of an accomplishment. Winning begets winning. But it is also true that a setback or struggle in an endeavor motivates even more, avoiding the trap of comfort and invincibility.
A respectable performance for Sporting Kansas City against Toluca FC where new players integrate smoothly and show they can raise the team’s level of play, even getting into the quarterfinals where more overall growth in their style and positive vibes can be gained, is my wish for Sporting Kansas City. But no more.
But then again, my wish could go as wrong as good wishes for an ex-girlfriend in her newest relationship: the intentions are all good, but, for some reason, it just doesn’t sit well with her.
So, no offense, Sporting Kansas City and loyal fans. And apologies. But I just may have this right.