Why you should care about this series
Participating in a Champion’s League provides a team’s fans with unique opportunities to watch new teams and learn about new places, and that can work both directions. A few weeks ago, in a comment on a previous column suggesting that SKC shouldn’t prioritize the CCL, I argued that:
Earning respect in the CCL is a way to broaden the team’s reach in a way that domestic achievements won’t achieve. Few outside Anglo North America will care who wins MLS Cup. A lot more will notice when an obscure US team wins a hemispheric competition over the best of Liga MX and Central America. I think that does matter in the long run, whether or not the generic US sports fan cares.
Even without a CCL title, international exposure through the CCL serves SKC in two ways: by increasing players’ awareness of (and respect for) Sporting Kansas City as a potential destination, and by exposing SKC to players they might be interested in pursuing.
During SKC’s series with Toluca, I had fun digging into that team’s history and press coverage a little, as I otherwise don’t follow Liga MX. I also watched most of the Toronto/Independiente series, both to scout the potential next opponent and because I was just plain interested in the excuse to learn about Panamanian soccer. What follows is my amateur scouting report from watching those games, adapted from a comment on the final game recap, along with some other research of interest to me and hopefully some of you.
A Bit About CAI
Against Toluca, SKC were looking up at a team with a bigger profile, bigger stadium, and higher payroll. The situation is now reversed. Club Atlético Independiente de la Chorrera (CAI) is based in the La Chorrera district of Panama, along the Pacific Coast a bit west of the canal. Founded in 1982 as a youth sports club, it’s slowly climbed the Panamanian ranks before earning promotion to the top-level Liga Panameña de Fútbol in 2017 and winning its first championship in 2018 (thus qualifying for CCL).
CAI plays in the 3,000 seat Estadio Agustín Sánchez, which is about median for a league whose stadia currently range from 500–5500 (with the exception of Tauro’s 32,000). Though they have no website, they’re active on Twitter, with 12,400 followers as compared to SKC’s 387,000. Keep in mind that Panama’s entire population is roughly twice the size of the KC metro area, they share that market with nine other top-level teams, and they only reached the first division recently.
Based on the limited media coverage I could find in Toluca (based on the team’s site and local newspaper), they didn’t seem to be prioritizing CCL. Panama seems to be taking this quite a bit more seriously; a major newspaper, La Estrella de Panamá (the Panama Star) published a series of stories about CAI’s series with TFC, despite being a national newspaper with lots of other teams and events to cover. Most of CAI’s roster is Panamanian, with the exception of three Colombians, two Venezuelans, and one Honduran, so it wouldn’t surprise me if there’s a sense of unified purpose on the team. The team has been plugging their upcoming home game against SKC with tweets like this we need a full house. They also just announced that kids under 12 get into Wednesday’s game free.
Here are my thoughts on CAI as a team after watching most of their previous series. I’m not an experienced analyst or player, just a fan, so take anything I say with a lot of salt. Translations below are my own, checked with SpanishDict and Google Translate (the latter really struggles with colloquial sports writing so is of limited use). If any reader speaks better Spanish and sees necessary corrections, please comment.
In the first game, my general impression was that CAI was really fast and had really good personal ball skills, and repeatedly burned TFC with rapid counterattacks or crisp handling. They’re like a whole team of Gersos, but even fancier. Their goals were beautiful individual efforts, not careful team buildups. TFC looked slow, disorganized, and befuddled; they seemed to be trying to control the game with possession but couldn’t hang onto the ball or play together. But I didn’t feel like CAI showed all that much strength at possession or buildup; they were like bees mobbing a slow-witted bear, not an organized wolf-pack methodically taking down a moose.
This was borne out by the game recap from La Estrella de Panamá, which commented that
El elenco panameño salió con un marcado 4-4-2, pero siempre esperando al rival, que no mostraba mucho fútbol, más bien se vio algo errático, típico en un equipo sin ritmo de competencia.
Roughly, "the Panamanians chose to come out with a 4-4-2 but always waited for their rival, who did not exhibit much football but were somewhat erratic, typical of a team without the rhythm of competition [note: I assume this is a reference to TFC being in preseason form]."
… la presión de los panameños, haciendo el traslado del balón incómodo para el Toronto, que no lograba cruzar el medio sector.
Roughly, "the Panamanian pressure made it uncomfortable for Toronto to pass the ball and they could not dominate the middle of the field."
Things were pretty different in the second game, where TFC looked better in terms of controlling the game and possession and methodically building up an attack. They actually could have been up 2-0 or 3-0 by the half with better finishing; if you’d given their final touch to a CAI player they would have been. CAI looked more lost in that game, like they didn’t know what to do when they couldn’t rocket down an open field and pull off a video-game one-on-one goal.
But the combination of focused defense from CAI and TFC’s own inability to finish meant that the possession and pressure didn’t turn into much success. I didn’t see CAI’s later goal but got the sense it came off a turnover and a quick shot, exactly what they looked best doing in the first game. Overall, what I saw of that game looked more like an old, toothless wolf pack with a sensible plan but an inability to finish off an antelope.
Again, from the game recap by La Estrella de Panamá:
A pesar de que el Toronto FC dominó por completo al equipo panameño, que salió con la estrategia de ceder el terreno de juego y el balón, el excampeón de la Liga Profesional de Fútbol de Estados Unidos (MLS) nunca pudo con la presión de tener que remontar un marcador adverso de 0-4 que cosechó en el partido de ida.
La primera parte resultó como se esperaba, una entrega completa del balón por parte del equipo panameño, que salió al terreno de juego con un 4-4-1-1 en su formación y dejó que el Toronto FC hiciese todo el desgaste.
Roughly, "despite the fact that TFC completely dominated the Panamanian team, which came out with the strategy of ceding the playing field and the ball, the former champion of the United States Professional Soccer League [note: sorry, Canada] could never overcome the pressure of the adverse 0-4 score they harvested in the first match."
"The first half resulted as expected, a complete delivery of the ball by the Panamanian team, who came out on the playing field with a 4-4-1-1 formation and let Toronto FC do all the work."
…el equipo del CAI, con gran disciplina defensiva, y concentración, poco a poco le fue quitando presión a las acciones del equipo canadiense
Roughly, "the CAI team, with great defensive discipline and concentration, little by little eased the pressure from the Canadian team [note: feel better, Canada?]"
So as for this series, I’m cautiously confident. SKC have looked far better at possession and ball skills than TFC so far, and I think are far better equipped to deal with an "angry bees" team. That being said, our tendency to press forward on the wings and the relatively slow back line are both warning lights for a CAI team that will absolutely burn any mistake. Melia’s likely to have to make saves in this series in a way that Toluca never really produced, and the center backs are going to have to have perfect situational awareness. If the first game goes wrong, it’ll be because SKC are tired or sloppy (or possibly just unlucky) in their possession and let those CAI forwards get one-on-one with (or behind) the defenders.
I think it’s going to be highly entertaining because both teams look dangerous on offense in completely different ways, and CAI makes me nervous in ways that Toluca never did. Given CAI’s defensive posture and counter-attacking strength, I’m curious if SKC comes out aggressive down in Panama or tries to hold for a road tie, especially given extra wear on the team at this point. But I think SKC has a strong superiority in their overall team system and if they can maintain that, they should be fine.
Update: I wrote most of this before Sunday night’s game. Now I’m more worried, because Vermes just set a torch to the starting lineup that had been playing such smooth, well-organized soccer. Now I have increasing fear of a TFC-style opening game, with a lineup that either can’t keep up with CAI (too tired without serious squad rotation) or a lineup that hasn’t played as a unit recently (too disjointed with serious rotation). Both looked to be factors in CAI’s dismantling of TFC and they’re suddenly more likely than I thought possible; no one saw Sunday’s lineup coming. It may also just be a pretty boring game if both teams play defensively and wait for mistakes. That would be too bad for all the fans who care about this special matchup, and another casualty of the bizarre decision to start the full A team against LAFC.