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Persistence: Sporting KC endures, triumphs big in Concacaf Champions Quarterfinal

First 73 minutes frustrate. Final 17 elate in 3-0 win. Monterrey next in semis.

MLS: Champions League-Independiente at Sporting KC Peter G. Aiken

It was do or die in the Concacaf Champions League Quarterfinal Thursday night at Sporting Kansas City’s Children’s Mercy Park. Sporting and Independiente La Chorrera of Panama battled to a 2-1 win for the host in Panama last Wednesday to set up this decisive contest. The winner would earn a matchup with Liga Mx side Monterrey in the semifinals.

For Sporting KC, the simplest scenario for victory in the two-leg aggregate goals series was a 1-0 win that would see the home side advance on the strength of Ilie Sanchez’s penalty kick goal in Panama last Wednesday. Giving up a goal to Independiente would complicate matters and require creation and enhanced finishing by the hosts.

It would be a long toil in getting there, but the hosts would go through thanks to a brace by Kristzian Nemeth and a marker by Roger Espinoza, despite the near-heroic effort from Independiente’s goalkeeper.

Kansas City’s starting eleven resembled much more of first-choice lineup in the decisive leg, featuring – for the first time in any competition this season – a front three of Johnny Russell, Nemeth, and last season’s leading scorer in all competitions, 22-year-old left winger Daniel Salloi.

Sporting cycled the ball quickly early on as the Panamanians sat back and waited to pounce with the speed and efficiency that typified their Round of 16 defeat of Toronto FC and the first leg against Kansas City. On this night, however, Sporting’s urgency and speed of ball movement found space wide and inside when Independiente was forced to heed the danger on their flanks.

An 8th minute effort by Russell typified the early tactics. The instigating Scot carried from his half, through and around two defenders to make the right end line. Russell then played a checking Nemeth who sent it left for a Salloi bender labeled for the far post, only for the shot to be blocked by the scrambling defense.

Salloi would threaten again in six minutes with a similar result. However, he would remain down for an extended period after an awkward encounter with two defenders and be helped off the pitch. Gerso was cast into the lineup for the Hungarian in minute twenty.

By the 28th minute, Sporting had three shots, but none had forced a save from Club Atletico goalkeeper Jose Guerra. For their part, the Independiente players seemed to all be near their health care deductible and desiring to get over the hump as encounters with Kansas City often meant a visitor prone on the pitch. It was a typical Concacaf battle rife with intensity on both sides, contention between opponents and from fans towards referee Joel Aguilar Chicas from El Salvador, and a sense of growing determination from the trailing side to gain the upper hand.

Kansas City held 72% of the ball by the 39th minute. In that same minute, Gerso would fire their first shot on goal, a tepid attempt from 8 yards on the left after some crisp ball movement from side-to-side-to-inside from the hosts.

The start of three minutes (of a what should have been at least twice that) of added time saw Nemeth draw a foul centrally some 28 yards out from Independiente’s goal. Right back Graham Zusi and Russell lined up, and it was Zusi who struck a bending, dipping drive, forcing Guerra into emergency flight at his near left post. The ensuing corner was innocuous, and the half soon came to a halt.

Three quick chances to begin the 2nd half by Sporting heightened the building tension. Gerso and Russell found space in the deep right corner of Independiente’s box, Nemeth then touched past Guerra facing a host of defenders, and Espinoza found Russell on the left of the box. All three got shots off, yet only Russell’s forced a serious save. Gerso would carry to the right post again in the 56th minute, this time hitting Guerra in the chest with a close-range shot.

Sporting goalkeeper Tim Melia would be tested from 40 yards next. Gerardo Negrete lined up his cannon from 40 yards and let loose a shot that troubled the stalwart. Melia bobbled the sure knuckler picking up speed from the wet grass, but then pounced on the loose ball. Guerra wouldn’t be as lucky as he faced a low steamer from Zusi. The rebound was belted into the face of Guerra by Russell in a whoa-inducing moment for the crowd. Yet, the score remained 2-1 Independiente on aggregate.

Again, Sporting would go close. Twenty-six yards out in the 66th minutes, midfielder Felipe Gutierrez wound up a right-footed, moving blast. Guerra leapt and reached to keep it from the back of his net for his finest save of the night.

Yet, the wonder would get wilder. Gutierrez alone in the box again, shot only to see Guerra flail for the save. Down on the pitch, the Independiente ‘keeper surely knew the shutout was dusted as the rebound came right back to the Chilean. As if playing a part in the plot, the ball clanged off the right post on the follow shot as hearts skipped a sure beat.

They say persistence is the key to success. Nemeth and company had lived it tonight. And in the 74th minute, reward was theirs. Off a corner from the left, Barath nodded a flighted ball from the back post across the box for the central Hungarian. Nemeth, on three goals in all competitions already this season, hit a volley that mercifully rippled the net and set the crowd into a fury.

Sporting continued creating chances. Deep on the left side attacking the near post, Gerso played across the mouth of the goal for Russell in the 81th. In a shrewd move, Russell faked his shot and clipped a pass to a central Roger Espinoza. The veteran midfielder slid to roof the ball into the net and set off another wild celebration by the faithful who had endured the wet and chill and wind of the night to clamor their side on to victory.

There was no stopping Sporting Kansas City now. Nemeth found pay dirt again, this time from a Gerso rush from the left. With pace on the pass, Nemeth let the ball run up the side of his foot for an astute chip into the far corner. If Independiente hearts had been broken 12 minutes earlier, they were now forlorn.

Sporting’s semifinal series with Liga Mx giants Monterrey – 3-1 aggregate winners of Atlanta United – will begin away April 2-4, before returning home April 9-11.