Entering the CONCACAF Champions League in the Round of 16, Sporting Kansas City and its fans had reservations: Kansas City was making only its fourth Champions League appearance (14 matches) since the tournament’s modern era began in 2008-09, while opponent’s Deportivo Toluca FC had also have four appearances but double the matches, and in 2014 they made it to the final, falling to fellow Liga MX side Cruz Azul on away goals. Additionally, Sporting had yet to play a significant match in 2019, while Toluca FC was seven games into its Liga MX Clausura season. But no rust or hesitation held back Sporting KC Thursday night at Children’s Mercy Park.
Krisztian Nemeth got the dream result started late in the first half, and Gerso Fernandes and Ilie Sanchez put the match out of reach as the defense tempered Toluca attempts in the second. Sporting Kansas City became only the second club to beat a Liga Mx team by three goals in the total history of the Champions League.
Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes put a strong lineup on the pitch with Tim Melia in goal, behind a four-man backline (L to R) of Seth Sinovic, Matt Besler, Andreu Fontas, and Graham Zusi. The midfield featured Felipe Gutierrez, Ilie Sanchez, and Roger Espinoza, backing up a frontline of Gerso Fernandes, Krisztian Nemeth, and Johnny Russell. Toluca FC, who fell 3-0 to Leon in their latest Clausura match, made two changes to their lineup from the weekend as defender Fernando Tobio and midfielder Luis Mendoza replaced Adrian Mora and Emmanuel Gigliotti, respectively.
A recognized danger for Sporting was Toluca’s ability to counter. In the 4th minute Toluca showed why as Luis Mendoz beat two Kansas City defenders on the left wing, cut back to his right, and hit a shot wide of goal that Sporting goalkeeper Tim Melia clearly had covered. Yet, the threat was real.
Early on, Kansas City right back Zusi was given acres of space on the right wing, however, in rotation of the ball, Kansas City was unable to make use. The home side did mix in a good measure of long balls finding Gerso on the left and Russell on the right.
And that is where their first significant threat originated. Russell cut in to find the Guinea-Bissau native in the 11th minute. Gerso’s shot was a tepid one though from the right side of Toluca’s box.
Toluca forced Melia to his left two minutes later. Yet, it was Sporting who would work a “counter” of their own in the 17th. Recycling the ball backwards to create open space, Sporting worked to Russell wide right. The Scot, ever dangerous and ever ready to take on defenders, cut in and played for a far-post-fading Nemeth. The Hungarian, expected to increase center forward production for the hosts this season, got his right leg on the pacey cross, sending it just wide of Toluca’s right post.
The match began to gain intensity as fouls to Gutierrez, especially, began to grow. Off a foul in the 25th minute, Russell played the free kick into the box where a Toluca defender headed to ball off his own post, though it was cleared from danger; then, on a subsequent attack, left back Sinovic hit a volley that dipped just over the bar on the left.
Sporting had to deal with Toluca’s skill and physical presence more often as the half wore on. But Gerso’s speed helped them gain the lead. Besler played a beautiful ball over the top for Gerso in 35th minute. The third-year winger was stopped by the defense in front of goal as a scrum for the ball ensued. A present Nemeth gathered, beat two, and deposited the ball into left side of net past Alfredo Talavera.
The goal, an off the ball mix-up between a Toluca player and Espinoza, and heating tempers set up a likely contemptuous and compelling 2nd half.
It only took eight minutes for the plot to thicken. Espinoza, released into space in midfield on an interception, found a square Gutierrez in space on the left. With Gerso forward and wider, the Chilean chipped cleverly for Gerso, who struck at the bounding ball with his left boot. The ball came off Toluca’s goalkeeper screened by Nemeth and a defender. Following, Gerso quite literally boomed the ball off his left into the roof of the net for a two-goal Sporting Kansas City lead.
Endeavoring to reject any bid for an important away goal, Sporting Kansas City had to stay composed, and hungry. In the 66th minute, Toluca’s Federico Mancuello earned and subsequently sent in a free kick on the left wing. The ball fell to Rodrigo Salinas whose shot banked off a recovering Besler busting it at the back post for a resulting corner.
Though Toluca would shank a shot that came from the corner, Sporting would do no such thing next. After another Gerso foray on the left, Toluca defenders cleared twice. Ilie would latch onto the second and hammer a volley from the top center of the 18-yard box that pinged off the underside of the bar and in. 3-0 Sporting Kansas City.
In an expected move, midfielder Kelyn Rowe entered the match for Espinoza in the 78th minute. Erik Hurtado stepped on for Nemeth four minutes later. Both were making their Sporting debuts. Daniel Salloi entered for Gerso in the 87th minute.
A dream start had been achieved in a night that could not have gone better for Sporting Kansas City. Now to finish the job.
The CCL rivals will meet in the decisive second leg next Thursday, Feb. 28, at Estadio Nemesio Diez in Toluca, Mexico, at 9 p.m. CT. The winner will advance to the two-legged quarterfinals (scheduled for March 5-7 and March 12-14) to take on the winner of Toronto FC and Independiente of Panama (4-0 winners in the first leg).