It might not be a glamorous fixture. It might not be a "big" name team. It might be a midweek fixture in October. And it might be coming at a slightly inopportune time as Sporting Kansas City chases the Supporters' Shield and playoff position.
But Sporting KC's final CONCACAF Champions League group stage match against Olimpia tonight is pretty big.
A win or a draw would qualify Kansas City for the knockout stage of the Champions League in 2014.**Yes, it's weird that the knockout stage won't come until March, but the Champions League schedule for CONCACAF lines up with the Champions League schedule in Europe. So, until Major League Soccer adopts a European-style calendar, this is always going to be a weird split. That is as close to entering that conversation as I'm willing to go.
If the goal is to be considered a big team in North America -- attracting not only big games and teams, but big players who view KC as a potential destination -- then qualifying for this stage is a must. The last time KC qualified for a knockout stage of an international tournament? The 2005 CONCACAF Champions Cup -- a knockout-stage competition only. The Wizards lost to Costa Rican side Saprissa then.**Before that, Kansas City actually did quite well in the 2002 Champions Cup, beating Santos Laguna in the quarterfinals before falling to Morelia in the semis.
Have I said "big" enough in this post? I think I have. But here's one more for good measure: Four MLS teams in the competition this season (Houston, Kansas City, San Jose and Los Angeles) have a chance to become the first MLS team win the CONCACAF Champions League.* Being the first team in MLS to climb that ladder? That would be big.*Since this format began in 2008, only Real Salt Lake has reached the finals. That was in 2011. Los Angeles is already in the next stage. Houston and San Jose, like Kansas City, can play their way in tonight.
And this might be the year for an MLS team. Traditional Champions League powerhouses Monterrey (winners of the last three competitions), Santos Laguna and current Liga MX leader Club America (slumped out of the tournament with a 1-0 loss to Costa Rican Alajuelense last night) aren't in the picture.
That leaves just Cruz Azul, Toluca and Tijuana (Herculez Gomez!) as the big guns left. This might be the best year for an MLS team to take care of business.
Major League Soccer teams have been growing in this competition. In 2008-09 and 2009-10, only a single team qualified for the knockout stage each year (Houston and Columbus, respectively). Both were eliminated in the first series of games.
In 2010-11, Salt Lake and Columbus both reached the knockout stage, with Salt Lake ousting the Crew in the quarterfinals en route the Finals (and a very tight 3-2 aggregate loss to Monterrey).
The last two campaigns have seen three teams reach the quarterfinals: Seattle and Los Angeles have reached both years, Toronto (!?!) reached once and Houston reached last year. Toronto even reached the semifinals (by beating Los Angeles [!?!]), but were trounced by Santos Laguna 7-3 on aggregate.
Last year, both Seattle and Los Angeles reached the semifinals. Both lost to Mexican sides (Santos Laguna and Monterrey,* respectively).*Thankfully for all involved this year, Monterrey -- winners of the last three Champions League finals -- and Santos Laguna weren't involved in the competition this year at all.
Of course, Kansas City will need to win against Olimpia to get into this conversation. A draw will get Kansas City through, but if you want an explanation for a why a win is a bigger deal, check outDown The Byline's post about possible match ups in the next round . Kickoff at Sporting Park is 7 p.m. If you can't make it out, the game is on Fox Soccer Plus.