Sporting KC couldn’t survive the Monster’s Cave. And now the club goes home shorthanded for their MLS season finale after two starters needed to be stretchered off.
Saprissa defeated Sporting KC 2-0 in one of CONCACAF’s toughest venues, Saprissa Stadium, on Thursday night. The Costa Rican squad clinched the final berth in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals, topping Sporting KC and Nicaraguan champions Real Esteli in Group 2.
The visitors entered the match with a lineup quandary. The club wraps up the MLS season against New York Red Bulls at Sporting Park on Sunday. With a win at home, the defending MLS Cup champs can secure a bye to the Eastern Conference semifinals of the playoffs. However, Sporting KC needed just a win, a draw or a one-goal loss against Saprissa to put the club into the second round of the CONCACAF tournament for the second straight year.
But injuries to captain Benny Feilhaber (ankle) and Igor Juliao (hamstring) derailed Sporting KC’s quarterfinal hopes. And the club almost certainly is facing some major problems in the MLS finale.
“It was really just trying to juggle and make sure we had players for both. And the thing that really hurt us was the two guys who got injured in the first half,” said coach Peter Vermes, “It really changed what we wanted to do in the second half.”
Vermes was unsure about the status of Feilhaber and Juliao for the Red Bulls match. He seemed more confident that Matt Besler and Andy Gruenebaum — hobbled starters left stateside for the Saprissa match — would play Sunday.
Even before the injuries, Sporting KC struggled against Saprissa’s dominant attack.
In the opening minutes, the home team had a few near-misses before Heiner Mora finally forced one by goalie Eric Kronberg in the 22nd minute. In the first minute of the second half, Ariel Rodriguez put Sporting KC on the brink with his fifth goal of the tournament.
Sporting KC was obliged to score, but instead Rodriguez, Mora and company kept coming hard at the Sporting KC goal.
Kronberg made crucial saves to keep the score manageable. But the attack never mounted much of a threat until the final desperate minutes.
Star midfielder Graham Zusi sat out due to a yellow card accumulation. So Sporting KC found itself without several key players and in need of a comeback in a stadium that Landon Donovan once called the most difficult place to play.
The Cueva del Monstruo, or Monsters’ Cave, swallows you up. The stands seem to tower over the pitch. The claustrophobia intensifies with purple-clad fans chanting, shaking the entire grandstand and banging drums that reverberate through the stadium.
The U.S. national team has lost all six matches here. And the Columbus Crew is the MLS club to ever win in the venue. In 2005, Saprissa scored two late goals to eliminate the then-Kansas City Wizards in the CONCACAF.
On Friday, the club did it again. Costa Rica will send three clubs to the quarterfinals, more than any other country in the region.
Meanwhile, Sporting KC heads back home hoping to survive another injury scare.
“The problem is I don’t know the two guys tonight how fast they’ll come back,” Vermes said. “That’s going to be the disappointing part.”