Last summer, the group stage of the CONCACAF Champions League offered Sporting Kansas City coach Peter Vermes a coveted but unique opportunity. It was the chance to test many of the club’s top backups in a competitive, meaningful competition.
That challenge won’t be necessary this time.
Sporting Kansas City has trotted out 24 different starting lineups in 24 Major League Soccer matches this season. In other words, as the club heads to Nicaragua to face Real Esteli at 9 p.m. Tuesday in its opening match of the CCL group stage, those backups have already seen their fair share of playing time.
“In this situation, normally I would say we have to use everyone on our roster. We have to make sure we’re good from that perspective,” Vermes said. “But we’ve been doing that every single game this season, so really it’s business as usual at this point.”
That importance of cycling the roster will ensure Sporting KC maintains a healthy allotment of players when it returns to MLS action Saturday. The leaders of the Eastern Conference will play host to second-place D.C. United at Sporting Park.
Add to that, Tuesday’s trip out of the country comes only three days after a key 4-1 victory against Toronto FC.
“It’s just about going out there, playing the first 45 minutes and then deciding what to do from there (with our personnel),” Vermes said. “Everywhere we go, we want to get three (points). But obviously all competitions have different scenarios you’re going to deal with.”
A rash of early season injuries and the subsequent playing time for reserves put Sporting Kansas City in better position to deal with those scenarios than it could last summer, though the club still managed to wins its CCL group in 2013. That group victory, fittingly enough, started with a trip to Real Esteli, where Sporting KC prevailed 2-0.
Dom Dwyer scored in the win — which took place three weeks before he started his first career league match with Sporting KC. The club also got a goal from top backup Ike Opara.
If Vermes opts to utilize his reserves again Tuesday — though he will be without Claudio Bieler, who had an issue obtaining his passport, Vermes said — they offer a wealth of experience. Sporting KC has started 29 different players in league play this season, the most of any team in the MLS.
“A lot of guys have gotten a lot of minutes, and we’ve played this competition before. So we should be well-prepared,” midfielder Benny Feilhaber said. “That makes a world of difference. I would expect everybody to be ready to go.”
That includes 21-year-old goalkeeper Jon Kempin, who won the first start of his MLS career Saturday against Toronto FC. Kempin, a Blue Valley North product, will likely start again Tuesday with starter Eric Kronberg (hand) and top backup Andy Gruenebaum (shoulder) nursing injuries.
Kempin is just the latest example of an early season backup forced to transform into a mid-season starter.
“I think we’ve seen that we can plug anybody into the lineup and get a good performance, and he’s going to make an impact,” said forward C.J. Sapong, who scored Saturday. “That’s just something as a team we all should know by now.”
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SPORTING KANSAS CITY AT REAL ESTELI
COMPETITION: CONCACAF Champions League
WHEN/WHERE: 9 p.m. Tuesday; at Estadio Independencia; Esteli, Nicaragua
TV: Fox Soccer Plus
ABOUT SPORTING KC: As a result of winning the MLS Cup last December, Sporting Kansas City is making its second straight appearance in the CCL. It ignited its 2013 group stage victory when it defeated Real Esteli 2-0 on the road before tying the club 1-1 at Sporting Park. Sporting KC only allowed one goal during group play last year.
ABOUT REAL ESTELI: The Nicaraguan club has made four appearances in the CCL, and it’s the country’s only representative this year. But Real Esteli is still searching for its first group stage victory. It has compiled an 0-6-3 record in group play, scoring just three goals.
BOTTOM LINE: Real Esteli, Saprissa (Costa Rica) and Sporting KC make up Group 2 in the 2014-15 CCL competition. Real Esteli and Saprissa tied in the group’s opening match, meaning Sporting KC would gain the upper hand on both teams with a victory Tuesday night.
PREDICTION: Sporting KC 2, Real Esteli 1