The Full 90

March 12, 2014

CCL MatchDay 1: The Machine comes to Kansas City

The CONCACAF Champions League draw did Sporting Kansas City no favors, pitting them against Cruz Azul over a two-leg series to advance. Cruz Azul is already in mid-season form and leading the Mexican league.

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Cruz Azul is easily the best club team to play a competitive game in Kansas City. Montpellier and Chivas Guadalajara both visited for friendlies. Roma was here for an All-Star Game.

The Machine (or La Maquina as they are known in Mexico) are deeper than Real Salt Lake and have bigger pockets than the Los Angeles Galaxy — the two best teams, in my opinion, that KC has previously hosted.

So, it stands to reason that Kansas City will have its hands full tonight.

I already blogged about the strong squad

The Machine (that's their nickname) have brought to Kansas City. Will all of them play? Maybe. Maybe not.

You won't confuse me with a Cruz Azul expert (basically, I know how to Google and search YouTube). But, I don't think you bring a bunch of first-team players and sit them on the bench. I mean, they are playing the best team in Major League Soccer after all. "America's Team."

Kickoff tonight is at 7 p.m. and will be broadcast on Fox Sports 2. Let's preview.

Can Kansas City win?

By now, you've probably already heard/read/seen/absorbed by osmosis this fact: No MLS team has won the CONCACAF Champions League — in this current format*. Real Salt Lake came achingly close in 2010, reaching the finals, before losing to Mexican club Monterrey.

*D.C. United and the Los Angeles Galaxy won the Champions Cup in 1998 and 2000, respectively. The Champions League format came into play in 2008.

Will that change this year?

Of all the MLS clubs in this year's knockout stage (San Jose and Los Angeles are in it as well), Kansas City has a system that should translate well. (Los Angeles, paired against a weaker Mexican side Tijuana, also has a solid shout too.

The Quakes played last night and managed a late 1-1 draw with Toluca.


Sporting KC's stellar home defense, overall team depth, cohesive squad, physicality, aerial strength on set pieces and possession-based attack are all traits a team needs to win in this competition. Mexican sides are good, but they aren't invincible.

However, Cruz Azul has been playing at another level this year. Especially at home, where they are 4-0-0 with a +7 goal differential. Which is why a victory at Sporting Park is vital.

They key for Kansas City is to control the ball (though, Azul often likes to play counter-attacking soccer), convert chances and keep Azul off the scoreboard. A 2-0 win would, likely, be an ideal scoreline. (Though, with Azul's firepower, it might need to be 3.)

Can KC win the pressure battle?

One of Sporting's key strengths under Vermes has been the ability to squeeze the opponent's room and space in the midfield. The high press gets a lot of attention, but it's only a facet of KC's overall pressure.

At Sporting Park, Kansas City likes to apply pressure to the middle of the pitch via a forward tracking back to cut off passing lanes, one of its three midfielders directly confronting the player with the ball or with one of the central defenders pushing up from his position to challenge the ball when it arrives to an advanced attacker. Often, KC does all three of these maneuvers at once.

By pulling a forward back (which is why you see the tenacious Dom Dwyer often in big games) toward the middle and pushing the defensive line up toward the middle, Kansas City can shrink the available playing space, negating the necessary room a creative midfielder must needs to operate.

When it works, it's sort of like a boa constrictor slowly cutting off the supply of oxygen (passing) to the attack. It's partly why Kansas City has allowed just 12 multi-goal games (and only one multi-goal loss) in three seasons at the park.

The theory: It's hard to string together a series of passes in the dangerous part of the pitch with someone harassing you into making mistakes.

Most teams combat this by forcing long passes over the top or overcommitting to wide positions outside of the 18-yard-box. (This is often why you hear Peter Vermes bemoaning teams who bunker against KC — if you sit back and bunker, KC can't press you and can't implement its style.)

There is one fatal flaw* that can be exposed by smart teams who can shuffle the ball quickly and vertically through the midfield.

*Besides patience, which in the past has befuddled KC's press a few times.

With its fullbacks often joining the attack, Kansas City can't afford to allow flowing movement through the middle of the park. If you remember back to 2013, that's how Portland battered Kansas City.

Kansas City are also susceptible in this system to overcommitting themselves to press the ball. Such as when New York came to town in 2013.

All that high- and back-pressing can expose gaps in KC's vaunted defense. A smart team can play through those gaps to great effect.

Kansas City needs to mind the gaps, protect the ball and make sure someone is there to cover when the press is on. Or else Cruz Azul will have a dangerous amount of space to play into.

Perhaps the addition of the speedy Ike Opara (likely replacing a suspended Collin) could help cover those gaps.* (Lawrence Olum, with big game experience for KC, could also play there.)

*The big loss with Collin? At the end of 2013, he was KC's best scoring option.

Lineup Prediction

I think this will be as strong as Vermes can get it. However, a few nagging injuries — I've gotten a vibe that either Chance Myers or Seth Sinovic (or both) might not be healthy enough to go tonight — and a schedule packed with five games in 15 days are hampering things for him. Here's my best guess.

GK: Eric Kronberg; DEF: Mechack Jerome, Ike Opara, Matt Besler-c, Josh Gardner; MID: Oriol Rosell, Paulo Nagamura, Benny Feilhaber; C.J. Sapong, Claudio Bieler, Graham Zusi

SUBS: Andy Gruenebaum; Kevin Ellis, Lawrence Olum; Jimmy Medranda, Sal Zizzo; Jacob Peterson, Dom Dwyer


I know KC will really push for a victory — and goals to get ahead — but if Azul does indeed bring its A-team to the show, it'll be very hard for that to happen. As such, it's going to be an uphill climb. Sporting KC can get a result (and they can win), but an on-form Cruz Azul is a very, very tough ask.

Kansas City 1, Cruz Azul 1

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