Sporting KC

A franchise-first: Sporting KC advances to Champions League semifinals

Sporting KC introduces 22-year-old midfielder Gedion Zelalem

Sporting Kansas City acquired Gedion Zelalem, a 22-year-old midfielder, in a transfer from Arsenal. Zelalem was introduced on Monday, March 11, 2019.
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Sporting Kansas City acquired Gedion Zelalem, a 22-year-old midfielder, in a transfer from Arsenal. Zelalem was introduced on Monday, March 11, 2019.

The initial response was equal parts relief and the release of mounting frustration. Sporting Kansas City striker Krisztian Nemeth actually broke away from his typical celebration, turning around to find one teammate flexing, another yelling toward nothing in particular and one more taking in a long exhale.

All of it to say this: At last.

After more than an hour of failure to solve Independiente’s packed-in defense, Nemeth finally found the back of the net in the 74th minute, the opening of the flood gates in Sporting Kansas City’s 3-0 victory Thursday in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals.

“Finally,” Nemeth simply offered. “You know it’s gonna come, but .... finally.”

A long-awaited breakthrough in front of 13,212 fans at Children’s Mercy Park will send Sporting KC through.

After dropping the first leg of the series 2-1 last week, Sporting KC’s comeback secures a spot in the Champions League semifinals for the first time in its modern era in franchise history. It will play Mexican-club Monterrey on the road during the first week in April to open a two-game aggregate scoring series before playing host to Monterrey in the second leg the following week.

“That was mentioned in the locker room beforehand — this group wanted to be the first team in club history to get this far,” Sporting KC captain Matt Besler said. “Job well done.”

As it attempts to march on, Sporting KC will do so on behalf of the league. And likely with its league foes’ support. All three other semifinalists — Monterrey, Tigres and Santos — reside in Liga MX. No MLS has ever won the modern format of the tournament.

Sporting KC toiled with its own fate. It unleashed 20 shots — nine of them on goal — without a reward for the first 73 minutes.

A statistical anomaly had one primary responsible party — Independiente goalkeeper Jose Guerra. He made 10 saves in the game. Afterward, Sporting keeper Tim Melia walked the length of the field to shake Guerra’s hand, acknowledgment from one elite shot-stopper to another.

“He stood on his head today,” Sporting coach Peter Vermes said.

“Their goalie was unbelievable,” midfielder Ilie Sanchez said.

“Wow, is this guy Buffon?” Nemeth said he once thought, referring to the former Italian national team keeper.

After Nemeth finally got one into the net in the 74th minute, the score was tied on aggregate, but Sporting was already in position to advance with the away goal tiebreaker.

No need for the tiebreaker anyway. Roger Espinoza secured another goal just seven minutes later, and Nemeth scored a second in the 86th minute, a sudden onslaught of goals that erased a night of frustration.

Because for an hour, Guerra was the man of the night. His best save came on Graham Zusi’s free kick in the first half. But he stopped Johnny Russell from point-blank twice. Stopped Felipe Gutierrez from about 12 yards out. Sporting KC also hit the post twice.

The pressure was squarely on his end all night. In a steady rain and even more consistent wind inside Children’s Mercy Park, Independiente strategized a defensive posture for 90 minutes to attempt to protect its 2-1 lead, and it coupled that with some time-wasting antics that Russell referred to as “rubbish.” Independiente finished the first half with zero goals, zero shots on goal, zero shot attempts, zero crossing passes in the final third and zero corners.

“It’s always nice to see that backfire,” Russell said with a smile.

The attention briefly turns back to MLS play — Sporting KC travels to Colorado on Sunday and hosts Montreal on March 30. But for a club that has already set its own history, a heavy emphasis will be placed on the Champions League.

That much was evident Thursday.

“I don’t think we were gonna be denied today,” Vermes said, adding, “This is a big moment for our club.”