After knocking off Saprissa 3-1 last week, Sporting Kansas City has a chance tonight against Real Esteli to take control of Group 2 in the CONCACAF Champions League.
A win would put KC on 7 points in the group with one game remaining — three ahead of Saprissa with a better goal differential. That final match? Yeah, it’s against Saprissa in Costa Rica next month.
For Esteli, winless and basically eliminated from qualifying beyond the group stage, it’s probably the end of the road this year.
Let’s get a quick preview in.
Venue: Sporting Park
Kickoff: 7 p.m.
Broadcast: Tuesday’s match will air live on Fox Sports 1 (English) and Univision Deportes Network (Spanish).
About KC: 1-0-1 (4 points) with a +2 goal differential after two CCL games.
About Esteli: 0-1-2 (2 points) with a -3 goal differential. Currently the league leaders in the Nicaraguan Primera Division with a record of 4-0-0.
Revenge for last season?
Last season, Kansas City needed a very late goal by Jacob Peterson to salvage a point against a game Esteli squad that frustrated KC’s attack all game.
Will Esteli — who also gave KC’s attack fits in Nicaragua last month — bunker again this year? Or, with nothing else to lose, will they go after KC?
It’s worth noting: Esteli has never won a CCL game.
Why this game matters
Kansas City needs to win this game. Here’s why:
1) Picking up the maximum points tonight — and possibly padding goal difference — would be a huge advantage because getting a result in Saprissa in October is a very difficult proposition. All time, Saprissa is 8-2-2 at home in CCL play.
Should Kansas City head to Costa Rica next month with seven points and a better goal differential, all they would need is a draw or a narrow defeat to advance to the knockout stage.
2) The better KC finishes in the group stage, the better the seeding for the knockout round. Last year, KC dropped points at home with draws to both Esteli and Olimpia. That dropped KC to the seventh seed and a very (as we all remember) unfavorable matchup with Cruz Azul.
Tactical question: Has KC locked in its starting lineup for the stretch run?
With a bye week looming, Peter Vermes was able to use a lot of first-choice players in the 3-1 win over Saprissa. His faith in guys like Toni Dovale (two goals) and Igor Juliao (dangerous all evening and much better defensively) was greatly rewarded.
Overall, the lineup had much better balance across the field. A fully fit Paulo Nagamura allowed Benny Feilhaber space and time to dictate possession and attack. Jorge Claros turned in his best performance in a Sporting kit as well.
So, was that lineup against Saprissa a peak into the stretch-run lineup for KC? I think it was close. Obviously, Matt Besler, Aurelien Collin (despite his form issues), Seth Sinovic, Feilhaber, Nagamura, Graham Zusi and Dom Dwyer are locks. Juliao, despite his issues, has been Vermes’ first-choice right back.
The only two spots that I think are still up in the air: Defensive midfielder and the winger opposite Zusi.
Claros’ play should earn him more meaningful minutes at the first position. Will Toni’s excellent showing earn him a spot on the other?
With Toni lined up across Zusi, it gave Kansas City’s attack two playmakers capable of cutting in on their stronger foot to create chances. It also makes KC more dynamic. The two players are both capable of drifting into midfield to pick up possession and both are good finishers if left space in or around the box.
Vermes can still experiment — or even play the tactical match-ups — with Soony Saad, Jacob Peterson, Sal Zizzo or C.J. Sapong.
But finishes like this could make it hard for any of them to supplant Toni.
Goalkeeper Eric Kronberg was slated to make his return from injury last week. However, a paperwork issue got in the way. If that paperwork is sorted, his return could come tonight — he is Vermes’ first-choice goalkeeper.
As for the rest of the lineup, a very important showdown with New England on Friday could lead to Vermes resting a few players.
Claudio Bieler (he actually scored against Chivas in KC’s last MLS match), C.J. Sapong, Kevin Ellis and Martin Steuble are all guys who could benefit from a pre-playoff run match.
I think Sporting KC has got its confidence back and, mostly, appear to have put the woes of the four-game losing slide behind them.