Sporting Kansas City midfielder Graham Zusi casually leaned his shoulder against a wall and answered an onslaught of questions that lasted longer than half an hour. After glossing over a variety of topics, he navigated the conversation to the CONCACAF Champions League.
The topic piqued his interest. Zusi eagerly listed the route Sporting KC took to reach a two-game quarterfinal series with Cruz Azul, which opens at 7 tonight at Sporting Park.
The list dragged on. It started at Sporting Park two summers ago, when the club won the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. It continued last August with wins in Nicaragua and Honduras.
Sporting KC takes the next step in the competition today — and it’s the biggest challenge yet. Cruz Azul sits in first place in the Mexico Primera standings.
“When you think about it like that, it took a lot for us to get here,” Zusi said. “When you put in all that work — it’s been two years, basically — you don’t want to blow your one opportunity. That’s why we’re so excited for it. We want to win it.”
That would be historic.
No Major League Soccer team has ever won the Champions League. Cruz Azul, on the other hand, has won the competition five times, tied for the most in the competition’s history.
Sporting KC used a reserve-heavy lineup to win its group and advance to the knockout stage, but it plans to pursue a trophy with all hands on deck.
Coach Peter Vermes called tonight’s match “as serious as any competition” Sporting KC plays, a statement his players backed up.
“I’s a very, very big game,” captain Matt Besler said. “It’s a great opportunity for our team and for individual players, too.”
Sporting KC will be shorthanded today — though to what extent remains unclear.
Defender Aurelien Collin is forced to sit out after yellow card accumulation in group play.
The rest of the club’s back-line availability is a bit murky. After sitting out Saturday’s MLS opener in Seattle, Chance Myers (right groin strain) and Seth Sinovic (right hip strain) participated in a light training session Tuesday, but Vermes classified them as questionable.
That leaves only Besler as a sure-fire bet on a back line charged with controlling the pace of the match inside its home stadium.
Sporting KC will make the return trip to Mexico City on March 19.
“I’m biased, but I think the back line is the most important part. I think it anchors the team,” Besler said. “Whoever is back there with me, I think it’s our job to manage the game. We have to find the right moments to step up and press high, but we also have to realize the right moments to control the game and slow it down a little bit.”
It’s a tough early-season task, Besler explained, especially against a team that is in midseason form. Cruz Azul, which is 8-1-1 through 10 matches, opened its season nine weeks ago.
“Their fitness is built up for a 90-minute match for all their players,” Vermes said. “... They’ve probably steadied themselves with the way the want to play. They’ve found the players they’re getting the most impact from. Those are things that happen over the course of the season. If you’re just starting (the season), there’s a big difference.”
But one Sporting KC hopes to overcome.
“The good thing is we have a group that’s hungry for winning,” Vermes said. “I don’t know if we’re going to win, but we’re going to go after it like we want it. Because we do.”Cruz Azul at Sporting KC