The task faced by Sporting Kansas City couldn't be more clear: Win or draw and move on to the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals.
Thanks to the1-0 win last week at Sporting Park
, Kansas City actually could lose and still advance. Because away goals are the first tiebreaker, should the match end in say a 2-1 win for Cruz Azul, the series would end as a 2-2 draw on aggregate. Since KC's goal would come on the road, it would break that draw.
Okay, so it can get a little bit more murky than clear.
Kansas Cityis in hostile territory
— Estadio Azul will be a cauldron — and fighting several years of bad results for American teams playing south of the border.
The game is a late start with a 9 p.m. kickoff on Fox Sports 2. Let's preview.
Did Kansas City do enough in the first leg?
An MLS team traveling to Mexico looking to close out a series has been an adventure over the past few years. The most recent example is Los Angeles last night. After staking themselves to a 1-0 lead in the first leg, the Galaxy came undone in Tijuana.The Xolos ran rampant over LA
with a goal in the first minute and two more before halftime.
While LA managed a hectic rally in the second half, it wasn't enough as the Xolos advanced with a 4-2 victory (4-3 on aggregate). In essence, Los Angeles came up one goal short.
There's a lesson there for Sporting.
Last week, Kansas City took the game to Cruz Azul and, in the process, opened the Mexican club's eyes to how SKC can marryphysicality and technical ability
. That won't be a surprise this time around. Despite a few quality chances, only Kevin Ellis' first-half goal separated the two teams. While the shutout was important and valuable — the pressure is now firmly on Kansas City's defense.
The Galaxy were exposed in the back by an aggressive and assertive attack. Being at home and with nothing to lose, the Xolos brought the house down on Los Angeles.
Kansas City can expect the same, and only grabbing a single goal in KC might come back to haunt to them.
KC's vaunted unit — the best defense in MLS the last two years — will have to keep things simple and tight. If gaps appear, expect players like Mariano Pavone and Marco Fabian to leap into them. The concept of bunkering isn't in Kansas City's nature, so I don't expect KC to pack it in and defend for 90 minutes. Instead, KC must be smart with how they press and where they press.
If Cruz Azul can manage to break through, the key then will be not to panic and get sloppy. Which is exactly what happened to Los Angeles. If it happens to Kansas City — who don't have the likes of Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan leading the attack — things could get dicey pretty quick.
Good Timing for KC?
One piece of good news for Kansas City's attack? Cruz Azul will be without several key players who are either suspended for yellow card accumulation or unavailable, including both regular fullbacks (Rogelio Chavez and Fausto Pinto) and two central midfielders (Xavier Baez and Alejandro Castro).
The absence of Castro, Azul's only real holding midfielder, could be a big time advantage for KC.
Kansas City's big loss will be Seth Sinovic, who is also suspended for yellow card accumulation. With the exception of Benny Feilhaber, Oriol Rosell and Matt Besler (who all played 90 minutes against Dallas), KC rested many of its key players. Of that trio, only Besler has played every minute this year.
There has been a lot of talk about Sporting KC's tough stretch of five games in 15 days. Cruz Azul is suffering as well. This match will be the third game in seven days for the team and they haven't rotated nearly as much as KC.
Last Saturday, many regular Azul starters — Pavone, Fabian, Mauro Formica, Luis Perea, Julio Juarez and Joao Rojas — all played significant minutes. What's more, those six played the entire 90 minutes in KC as manager Luis Fernando Tena didn't make a single substitution.
How tired will those players who have seen little rest in seven days be? Will Tena take into account a potentially tricky match away to Leon (last year's Liga MX winners) this coming Saturday?
The timing of this fixture might be just right for Sporting KC.
GK: Kronberg; DEF: Ellis, Collin, Belser-c, Gardner; MID: Rosell, Nagamura, Zusi; FWD: Peterson, Bieler, Sapong
BENCH: Gruenebaum; Jerome, Opara; Olum, Feilhaber; Dwyer, Zizzo
PredictionSporting KC 1, Cruz Azul 1(Sporting KC advances 2-1 on aggregate)
This is an important game, not only for the players and fans, but the franchise. A lot of pressure has been put on Peter Vermes to win this. Can he come up with a smart, sensible game plan to get the job done?
I expect we'll see Kansas City play a very similar style as they did on the road in the playoffs. A selective press, a focus on breaking up play, not fouling in or around the box and looking for a counter attack.
A lot of emphasis will be put on Claudio Bieler and Graham Zusi (both should be well rested) to pick up an away goal. Kansas City will want to get that goal early on and put a lot of pressure on Azul. Look for Paulo Nagamura and Oriol Rosell to sit deeper in an effort to disrupt Azul's movement through the middle.
If it works — as it did in November — Kansas City can start preparing for Tijuana.
If it doesn't, Kansas City will need someone to find their scoring boots.* Or hope Aurelien Collin has a few more goals in him.*Despite my prediction, I can see a scenario where this game gets sideways for KC and they can't find the goals to climb back into the game. That's always the fear in this leg.