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MLS Concacaf Champions League hopes now rest on Sporting Kansas City

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Sporting KC have now gone farther than ever before in the modern CCL.

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

Stop me if you’ve heard this story before.

Sporting Kansas City come out of the gate early looking like the better side. They fire shot after shot. They dominate possession. Yet somehow they can’t find the back of the net.

If you’re an SKC fan, this isn’t the first time you’ve seen this happen.

Yet Thursday night’s story ended differently than in years past. Sporting KC’s defense held on the few counter opportunities CAI had on the night.

Finally, in the 74th minute, Sporting KC broke through.

Then they did it again.

And again.

“There was a big difference in this game today in that we wouldn’t have done two, three, four years ago,” said manager Peter Vermes.

What started as a nerve-racking night in The Blue Hell ended in a raucous celebration of victory. The 3-0 victory at Children’s Mercy Park meant Sporting KC advanced on a 4-2 aggregate scoreline to face Monterrey in the Concacaf Champions League (CCL) semifinals, the farthest SKC has gone in the tournament’s modern era. (Sporting KC, then the Kansas City Wizards, advanced to the Champions’ Cup semifinal in 2002.)

“It’s a historical moment in that we’ve never made it this far and for us to take this step,” said Vermes. “The way that we’ve prepared up until this point, we’ve put a lot of emphasis on finding a way to get through these first two series and we’ve done that. It’s a big moment for the club but obviously we’ve got a big challenge in front of us with Monterrey.

“I just felt it was inevitable,” Vermes continued. “We were too good to not win the game and go through.”

Sporting KC entered the game down a goal after losing 2-1 in the first leg on the road in Panama. They knew that CAI would likely come in playing defensively and try to slow the game down, but the extent to which the Panamanian side did it was a bit extreme for Vermes’ liking.

“It bothers me so much about the game because I don’t think the game should be played that way,” Vermes said. “What was great was how the tables turned and they wanted the game to be hurried up and our guys were very intelligent in the way that they managed the game at that moment. It’s nice to be able to turn the tables on someone who wants to play that way.”

“It’s kind of like a taste of your own medicine,” Roger Espinoza added. “Nobody likes doing that. In the US, when they play they don’t waste time. They just want to play.”

If there was one theme throughout the Sporting KC locker room post-game, it was that no one was ever worried, even after CAI keeper Jose Guerra made save after save—13 to be exact.

“We knew [the goal] was coming,” said Ilie.

“I honestly was not frustrated. I didn’t see frustration from my teammates,” Espinoza said.

“We played exactly how we wanted to,” Graham Zusi added.

“If we kept piling on that pressure it was only a matter of time” said Johnny Russell.

That confidence may serve SKC well as they go on to face one of the continent’s most successful teams in Liga MX powerhouse Monterrey.

The Rayados, as the Mexican side is known, were in the midst of a 13-game unbeaten streak across all competitions before a 1-0 second leg loss in Atlanta on Wednesday night, their first loss in 2019. They currently sit third in the Liga MX Clausura table, just one point behind both Tigres UANL, who is also still alive in the CCL, and Club León.

Despite the lack of confidence from league pundits, Sporting KC’s victory gave MLS a glimmer of hope that an American club may be able to win North America’s biggest tournament for the first time. Atlanta United, the New York Red Bulls, and the Houston Dynamo were all eliminated from the competition this week.

Does that add a bit of extra motivation for a Sporting KC team looking for their first trophy since the summer of 2017?

“No. We’re focused on us. We’re confident with the team we have and the way we’re playing right now,” said Matt Besler.

“It’s not MLS versus Liga MX. It’s us versus three other really good teams. That’s the way we’re looking at it.”