Cruz Azul manager Luis Fernando Tena took his seat in the center of the press room stage last week, patiently waited for the camera lights to flicker on and then presented an opening statement.
Despite a 1-0 loss to Sporting Kansas City only moments earlier, Tena was calm, gentle and full of complimentary words.
He praised Sporting Kansas City’s talent, its physical play and its defensive prowess in the opening leg of the two-game CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals series.
It was the sort of politically correct monologue that coaches often cycle through — until Tena ended it with a bit of a warning for the defending MLS champions.
“This series is still wide open,” he said through a translator. “It’s going to be a very difficult game for (Sporting KC) back in Mexico.”
Not exactly a stranger to difficult environments, Sporting KC has played its past 37 home MLS matches in front of sellout crowds. It opened the 2014 regular season surrounded by 39,000 fans in Seattle, nearly all of them rooting for the opposition.
But an entirely new beast awaits Wednesday night.
Sporting KC is preparing for a raucous environment as it travels to Mexico City to close out the quarterfinals series with Cruz Azul. The teams will meet at Estadio Azul at 9 p.m.
“I’m sure the environment is going to be a tough one,” midfielder Benny Feilhaber said. “Mexican soccer fans are very excited about this game, and obviously Cruz Azul is a first-place team. I think it’s going to be a great challenge.”
The 35,000-seat stadium is known for its high-energy, passionate fans, known as The Blue Bloods. The field at Estadio Azul sits below street level, entrapping the players in a pit on the field.
Cruz Azul is unbeaten in five home matches while vaulting to the top of the Liga MX standings, and now it will play with a backs-to-the-wall mentality. Sporting KC leads the aggregate series 1-0, which means the home team must force the action Wednesday night.
“They’re going to (throw) everything at us. They’re going to go after it,” Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes said. “We know it’s coming, and we’re prepared for it. It’s one of those games we’ve been looking to play for a long time. I know our guys are ready to play in this game.”
Trying to become the first MLS team to win the Champions League, Sporting KC needs only a draw to advance to the semifinals, and it could even advance with a loss. If the aggregate score is tied after the completion of 90 minutes Wednesday, the tiebreaker is away goals. Because Sporting KC prevented Cruz Azul from netting an away goal last week, it could lose 2-1 on Wednesday and still advance with the only away goal of the series.
If Cruz Azul takes a 1-0 victory, however, the teams will play overtime, followed by a shootout, if necessary.
“I think we’re looking at this as a challenge, but we also know the pressure is on them,” Feilhaber said. “We took care of business at home. We just have to go in there, do our thing, forget about the crowd and play the game.”
A one-goal series advantage, however, doesn’t mean Sporting KC will play a defensive style.
“They have to get back in the game right now, but we’re not going into this game thinking it’s 1-0 — we’re going into this game thinking it’s 0-0,” Vermes said. “We have to go play. We have to be smart. And we have to be very attentive to every roll of the ball.”