The Full 90

Sporting begins pursuit of CONCACAF Champions League crown tonight

Updated: 2013-08-07T22:31:38Z

By TOD PALMER

The Kansas City Star

You know what they say about the best-laid plans, right?

Sporting Kansas City geared up all season for a loaded schedule, hoping to chase three championships.

The race for Major League Soccer glory is going well with Sporting KC solidly positioned for a playoff push and a shot at the MLS Cup.

Defending the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup title didn’t go as planned, thanks to Sporting KC’s USL Pro affiliate, Orlando City SC.

Tonight, pursuit of the CONCACAF Champions League crown begins with first of four games in the round-robin group stage.

Manager Peter Vermes has tried to manage his roster around an inordinate amount of national team duty — Matt Besler, Mechack Jerome, Peterson Joseph, Kei Kamara, Mikey Lopez, Soony Saad and Graham Zusi all have spent time away from the club — with a busy August and September in mind.

Of course, now that it’s here, those best-laid plans have gone awry thanks to a few injuries, most notably to Zusi and fellow midfielder Paulo Nagamura.

“Unfortunately, at the moment, we’re pretty banged up, but we’ll have to make the best we can out of it,” Vermes said. “We’ve got to go get a result in this first game, get our feet wet and go from there.”

Champions League is an opportunity Sporting KC doesn’t want to waste.

For starters, qualifying for the competition isn’t easy.

Sporting KC won’t repeat as Open Cup champions, which means the only path back into the event is by reaching the MLS final or winning the Supporters’ Shield.

“The depth of the group may be tested, but we’re well prepared and I think we have a lot of quality that is sufficient to go down to Nicaragua and get three points,” said Nagamura, who remains sidelined with a sprained left ankle. “We have two very tough road games to start and we have to get some points out of that for sure if we want to go through to the next round.”

Sporting KC next plays Aug. 27 at CD Olimpia in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

“It’s a good tournament and something that we, as a club, want to progress in and make a name for ourselves in the region not just in this country,” said forward Jacob Peterson, who played in Champions League with Toronto FC. “It’s our first step in that whole process. It’s an opportunity to take Sporting Kansas City from just a domestic club and really put them on the regional level, where teams look at Sporting Kansas City as one of the top places and a good place to play.”

Sporting KC has worldwide ambition, hoping to become known as more than merely a first-class MLS organization. The club wants to be known as a top club beyond North America as well and, with its first waltz onto the international stage since the rebrand in Nov. 2010, this is the first real chance to do that.

“It gives us a different type of prestige for the organization and takes the brand international,” Vermes said. “We get to play against the best teams from other leagues, so for us it’s an exciting event and it should be for our fans as well, especially because it brings those teams here to play against us and see how we match up.”

Sporting KC at Real Esteli FC

• WHEN/WHERE: 9 p.m. Wednesday at Estadio Independencia in Esteli, Nicaragua

• TV/RADIO: Fox Soccer Plus; no radio

• ABOUT SPORTING KC: Injuries have thrown a wrench into Peter Vermes’ carefully crafted plans to manage the roster for a loaded 2013 season. Midfielders Graham Zusi, Paulo Nagamura and Josh Gardner are hurt as Sporting KC opens CONCACAF Champions League play. Still, Sporting KC’s defense is mostly healthy, and it has an abundance of attacking options up top — more than enough depth to steal three important road points to open the group stage.

• ABOUT REAL ESTELI: El Tren del Norte (The Train of the North) opened its 2013 season Saturday with a 2-1 win against Juventus Managua. Manuel Rosas scored a penalty kick, and the game-winner came courtesy of an own goal. Estadio Independencia is a 5,000-seat synthetic turf stadium, which is undergoing a $7 million renovation.

• BOTTOM LINE: Central American teams are technically gifted and skilled at time-wasting if they grab a lead, but Sporting KC ought to physically overwhelm Real Esteli. Matt Besler, Benny Feilhaber , Jimmy Nielsen, Claudio Bieler, Aurelien Collin, Mechack Jerome, Peterson Joseph and Oriol Rosell may not have Champions League experience, but they’ve all played plenty of soccer throughout the world to feel comfortable with the Champions League environment.

• PREDICTION: Sporting KC, 3-0

To reach Tod Palmer, call 816-234-4389 or send email to tpalmer@kcstar.com. Follow him at twitter.com/todpalmer.

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