Sporting KC

Sporting KC secures first-ever win in Mexico, advances to Champions League quarters

Sporting Kansas City head coach Peter Vermes in the first half of an MLS soccer match Saturday, March 24, 2018, in Commerce City, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Sporting Kansas City head coach Peter Vermes in the first half of an MLS soccer match Saturday, March 24, 2018, in Commerce City, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski) AP

The competition dates back to the 1960s, an interleague tournament that offers Mexican clubs an annual opportunity to flaunt supremacy over their American counterparts.

Alas, no more.

So says Sporting Kansas City.

Sporting KC rolled over Toluca FC to a 2-0 road victory Thursday in Mexico, wrapping up a series win in the CONCACAF Champions League Round of 16. Sporting KC advanced to the quarterfinals on a 5-0 aggregate score after it won the first leg 3-0 last week.

In totality, Sporting Kansas City’s series performance was dominant. It was a bit stunning. And it was historic.

In a tournament that began in 1962, Sporting KC became the first American team to defeat a Mexican club in a Champions League two-game series when the second leg was played on Mexican soil.

“We were tough physically, but we were even more tough mentally,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said. “You have to be tough to win these series, and tonight we were.”

Sporting KC suddenly looks every bit the contender to become the first MLS team to win the modern format of the CONCACAF Champions League. It will face Panama-side CA Independiente in the quarterfinals, with the first leg set for next week in Panama, likely Wednesday. CAI defeated Toronto FC 5-1 in their Round of 16 series.

In a constant search for signs of its own growth, Major League Soccer has a bundle of them before its 2019 regular season even begins. Four of the eight quarterfinalists in the Champions League are MLS teams, with Atlanta, Houston and N.Y. Red Bulls already advancing. But Sporting KC provided the most unique and significant moment. For some 57 years, American teams have submitted to Liga MX clubs in the final leg of a two-game series in Mexico.

For one night, Sporting KC carried the torch for its league.

“We’re not even thinking about that at all. We’re truly not. I’m not at all,” Vermes said. “My thing is that we wanted to move on in this tournament. We’ve done that. We know we’ve played a really good team that was going to be a challenge.”

After Sporting KC cruised to a 3-0 win in the opening leg, Toluca put Sporting under pressure in its altitude Thursday. But that spell spanned just five minutes.

Because Sporting had the breakthrough on the counter. Gerso Fernandes scored in the eighth minute, his second goal of the series, after Roger Espinoza crossed the field with a 50-yard pass into the box. The ball fell to Fernandes’ foot, and after a quick crossover, he beat the keeper to give Sporting KC its first ever lead in Mexico.

“Great run by Gerso. Awesome ball by Roger,” Vermes said.

The goal effectively ended the series. Krisztian Nemeth added a penalty kick in the 61st minute for good measure after Toluca defender Adrian Mora pulled him down in the box. Mora was ejected on the play, and Sporting KC finished the game playing 11 on 10.

After a trip to Los Angeles FC this weekend for the MLS regular season opener, Sporting KC will move back to the CCL in pursuit of another accomplishment no MLS team has reached — winning the modern format of the tournament.

It’s a pursuit that began nearly two years ago, when management tweaked the roster to lay the foundation. And the preparation took a unique turn this preseason. Sporting KC players slept in altitude tents for weeks to better prepare for the 8,750 elevation in Toluca, a hurdle it feared would provide its biggest challenge.

Instead, it was a virtual non-factor.

Sporting KC held the better of the play after settling into the game. It dictated the tempo, controlled possession and left Toluca lifeless for the second time in as many meetings.

“Our approach to this whole thing and the guys’ commitment to do the altitude tents and train in altitude (made a difference),” Vermes said. “Their commitment every day, it was different level.”