Photo by ISIPhotos.com
By TATE STEINLAGE
So, Cruz Azul is human after all. The Liga MX leader dropped its first match of the year this past weekend — a 3-0 beating at the hands of Tigres UANL.
However, the Mexican side is still a giant at home, unbeaten and having allowed just one — yes, one — goal in league play at Estadio Azul. So for Sporting Kansas City, a team that will be stepping on the pitch Wednesday for just its second match of the season, that makes the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals at home that much more crucial.
“There are two matches and one of them is at home, so this is our home leg,” Sporting KC defender Matt Besler said Tuesday. “It’s our chance to drive the game and push the game. It’s our chance to play in front of our fans and have that home-field advantage, so we need to take advantage of that.”
The second leg of the matchup is set for March 19 in Mexico City, almost 8,000 feet above sea level, and nearly 7,000 feet higher than Kansas City. The forecast for Mexico City next week is in the 80s. Wednesday’s high in Kansas City is 47, with a kickoff temperature likely in the 30s. Those factors are just a few reasons why Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes is thankful the first leg is at Sporting Park.
“I think it’s better to have it at home, especially because we haven’t played a lot of games,” Vermes told SBI. “If we had to go there (Mexico City), (there’d be) altitude, the weather would probably have been a little warmer — all that stuff would have played against us.
“I think coming to our place, the weather will be more conducive for us, not having to deal with heat right away. Even though we had preseason (in Arizona and Florida), we’re trying to minimize the amount of minutes we’re in the heat. No doubt that it’s better we’re at home.”
Being home at Sporting Park, Sporting KC look to play comfortable, and that may mean one thing Wednesday: a physical battle.
“I don’t want to get into too much of the game plan, but we’re definitely gonna make them feel it. When they come into our stadium, we want to make them feel what it’s like to be a road team, and to be playing against a home team in a tough atmosphere.”
But despite playing more than 1,500 miles away from home, Cruz Azul should still be well-represented by family members and traveling supporters, both domestic and in the United States. The expected away support has had several Sporting KC players telling the “Blue Hell” faithful to raise their game to a new level Wednesday.
“I’m hoping that the Sporting KC fans that are there will challenge themselves to be louder and to make it known that they’re there,” Besler said.
Sporting KC’s lineup is still up in the air, though. Defenders Chance Myers and Seth Sinovic and midfielder Paulo Nagamura—all regular starters—were not in the 18 Saturday in Seattle due to injury, and Vermes says Sinovic is still listed as questionable with a lingering hip injury.
The team will also be without starting defender Aurelien Collin. The French center back is forced to sit out of Wednesday’s match due to yellow card accumulation picked up in the Champions League group stage. He will likely be replaced by defender Ike Opara, who started in 15 regular-season games for Sporting KC last year.
But regardless who starts, the team is on the same page when it comes to the importance of bringing a trophy back to Kansas City and to this country.
“That’s really all our motivation — to be the first team to win it,” midfielder Graham Zusi said. “(There) hasn’t been an MLS team in history to do so, and we really want to be the first to do it.”
Sporting KC and Cruz Azul kickoff at 8 p.m. ET Wednesday on Fox Sports 2.