As many as three years ago — or at least that’s his best estimate — Sporting Kansas City manager Peter Vermes brought up the subject of CONCACAF Champions League play in front of his team. He spoke with players about the opportunity to welcome meaningful international competition into Sporting Park. Together, they wondered aloud what that might might be like.
By SAM MCDOWELL
The Kansas City Star
The reality is here. Sporting KC will play host to Real Esteli F.C. from Nicaragua at 7 p.m. Tuesday. It will mark the third game in the group stage of the CONCACAF Champions League, but it’s the first at Sporting Park.
It’s that latter fact that persuaded Vermes to break his preference for secrecy — albeit briefly — when asked about his starting lineup for a game outside of MLS play. A project three years in the making will feature many of Sporting KC’s best, Vermes hinted.
“We’re not holding anything back,” he said. “All our guys are ready to go.”
Sporting KC can gain a stranglehold on the CCL group Tuesday. The club swept road games against Real Esteli and Honduras-based CD Olimpia last month, giving it a strong edge toward advancement.
A victory Tuesday — especially one of multiple-goal differential — could help Sporting KC all but wrap up the top spot in the three-team group. CD Olimpia will visit Sporting Park on Oct. 23.
If two teams tie for first, the tiebreaker would be goal differential. Sporting KC won each road game by two-goal margins.
“Getting the win is the most important thing,” Sporting KC defender Seth Sinovic said. “If we happen to get some goals on top of that, that would be huge, but we don’t want to take anything for granted. We know it’s a tough team we’re playing against.”
And one they saw only six weeks ago, though that fact may not provide the advantage of familiarity it usually would.
In Tuesday’s matchup, Sporting KC is left with a less-than-clear picture of what to expect from its international opponent. With Sporting KC on the brink of taking full control of the group, Real Esteli FC desperately needs a result. And that desperation could take the club one of two ways.
“It will be interesting to see what they do,” Vermes said. “They need to win, so they have to come here to play. That doesn’t mean a team can’t sit back and counter attack either. So we’re ready for both aspects.”
Sporting KC has enjoyed an extended break — it hasn’t taken the field since a 3-0 victory on Sept. 7 at home against Columbus. The squad will return to MLS action on Saturday with a match at Toronto.
Vermes said the time off has allowed the team to fine-tune long-term tactics, while also freeing up a few days to focus more specifically on what Real Esteli FC brings to the table.
Most importantly, though, the break means Sporting KC will have close to its full roster available on Tuesday.
“We did a lot of hard work on the road,” Vermes said. “Now you can’t take your foot off the gas pedal. Now is the time to really go after it and secure the result here.”
REAL ESTELI FC AT SPORTING KANSAS CITY
WHEN/WHERE: 7 p.m. at Sporting Park
ABOUT SPORTING KC: Matt Besler, Graham Zusi, Peterson Joseph and Mechack Jerome are set to return from their respective international duty, with both Americans expected to see extended playing time. Coming off a 10-day break, Sporting KC should have fresh legs. The club returns to MLS play on Saturday in Toronto.
ABOUT REAL ESTELI FC: The class of soccer in Nicaragua, Real Esteli FC has dominated the country’s top soccer league, winning its past seven championships. Rudel Calero led the league in scoring with 18 goals. His teammate, Elmer Mejia, was second. Real Esteli FC plays in front of a home crowd that totals a shade less than 5,000 fans per game. It leads the league in attendance. Sporting Park will represent a unique dynamic to the visitors.
BOTTOM LINE: Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes said his club was “tactically excellent” in a 2-0 win at Real Esteli FC six weeks ago. Sporting KC grabbed an early lead on a goal from Ike Opara then countered its opponents’ aggressiveness with a second-half goal from Dom Dwyer for the 2-0 final.
PREDICTION: Sporting Kansas City, 2-0
To reach Sam McDowell, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/SamMcDowell11.