For the first time in four years, Sporting Kansas City will participate in an international tournament Wednesday when the club kicks off group-stage play for the 2013-14 CONCACAF Champions League in Esteli, Nicaragua.
It is Sporting KC’s first appearance in the Champions League, although the club twice qualified under the old format for the 2002 and 2005 CONCACAF Champions’ Cup competitions.
“It’s a big deal, because you not only represent Kansas City but now you represent the whole country soccer-wise,” Sporting KC goalkeeper and captain Jimmy Nielsen said. “Of course, you want to do well. Champions League is extremely huge in Europe and we’re trying to make it big here in CONCACAF. It would be a big honor to go far in this tournament.”
Sporting KC, which also played in the 2001 Copa Merconorte and 2009 North American Superliga, qualified for Champions League by winning the 2012 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup almost a year ago to the day (Aug. 8, 2012).
Now, Sporting KC aims to make Major League Soccer history.
“Nobody’s won it in our league yet and, if we win it, then we go into the (2014 FIFA Club World Cup),” Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes said. “It’s a competition that anybody in our league would love to win, and it’s another championship opportunity, so we’re going to do the best we can.”
Of course, the Champions League presents some unique challenges.
For starters, Real Esteli FC — Sporting KC’s first opponent — is a Central American powerhouse that has won 14 titles in Nicaragua’s Primera Division since 1991 and has qualified for the Champions League every season since its formation in 2008-09.
Of course, Real Esteli is 0-6-2 all-time in Champions League play and 0-27-7 overall in CONCACAF competitions.
CD Olimpia, which Sporting KC plays Aug. 27 in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, is considered the stronger of the other two teams in Group 2 with Vermes’ crew.
Still, there are no gimmes in the Champions League.
“We’re basically on our own,” said injured midfielder Paulo Nagamura, who played in the 2008-09 Champions League with Chivas USA. “We’re going to some countries where we’re going to play against the fans, the turf, maybe the referees — a lot of stuff. It’s going to be tough, no doubt about it, but we’re well prepared for it and, as players, we’re excited to be in this tournament.”
Forwards Jacob Peterson (Toronto FC, 2010-11) and Kei Kamara (Houston Dynamo, 2008-09, 2009-10) also have Champions League experience along with injured midfielder Josh Gardner (Columbus Crew, 2010-11).
For most of Sporting KC’s players, though, it will be a new experience.
“It’s a strange atmosphere,” Peterson said. “It’s not like you’re just going over to LA and playing in a nice stadium with good locker rooms and stuff. There’s some interesting stadiums down there and, with this club, I think there’s a three-hour bus ride the day of the game.”
He continued, “Some guys have been coming to me, but the ownership group has given us a good opportunity to succeed. Advancing and winning our group — I don’t think we should settle for anything less than that. Hopefully, this game will start us off on a good note.”
Obviously, many fans may not understand the Champions League, which includes return legs Sept. 17 (Real Esteli) and Oct. 23 (Olimpia) at Sporting Park, but Sporting KC hopes for a deep run that will pique its fans’ interest.
“We’ve going against the best teams in the CONCACAF region, playing it out to see who’s the best overall, so it’s important in a lot of different aspects,” left back Seth Sinovic said. “We want to show well for the MLS and keep getting the league’s name out there, but we want to show well for our club as well.
“It’s like the U.S. Open Cup but bigger, it’s regionwide. It’s an exciting thing for the fans to be able to see some of the top teams in the region play. No MLS team has ever won it, so we’d like to be the first one. Hopefully, the fans will get behind us to do it.”