Sporting KC

Sporting KC is MLS’ last hope in the Champions League. It remains an uphill battle

Sporting KC’s Peter Vermes on Monterrey: “We’re gonna have to be really good.”

Sporting Kansas City travels to Monterrey on Thursday for the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals.
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Sporting Kansas City travels to Monterrey on Thursday for the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals.

A few days before Sporting Kansas City boarded a chartered flight to Mexico, its players gathered to talk about the significance of what was looming. With four teams remaining in the CONCACAF Champions League, only one is left to represent Major League Soccer. Only one to offer some hope of what none of its predecessors accomplished.

Sporting KC travels to Monterrey on Thursday for the opening leg of a CCL semifinal series before hosting the final leg next week. The team is on the edge of history.

Kind of.

Sporting KC is two series victories shy of becoming the first MLS team to win the modern format of the CCL. But there’s a catch. A big one, at that.

It was the gist of that team-wide conversation this week. A championship would require two series wins against Liga MX teams. Two wins against the collective kings of this tournament.

“We’ve been tested so far, and we’re going to continue to be tested,” Sporting KC captain Matt Besler said. “It’s about us staying strong as a group and answering the challenge. We’re eager to see how far we can take this one.”

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For 12 years, no MLS team has taken it all the way. None have turned hope into reality. Others advanced to this stage only to flame out to their Liga MX counterparts as the Mexican clubs begin to more heavily place their starters into the mix.

The obstacles facing MLS teams — and now confronting Sporting KC — are obvious and thoroughly discussed.

Talent. Money. Scheduling. Mentality. Tradition.

And did we mention money? Monterrey has a dozen players whose salaries would categorize them as designated players in the language of MLS, a source told The Star. That leaves a couple of players on the bench who net more than $1 million each. MLS allows its teams to field just three designated players, with some available funds to push that number one or two blips higher.

In the past 10 months alone, Monterrey has acquired two players on transfer fees surpassing $15 million each, according to multiple reports. Sporting KC’s two most recent transfer fees — Johnny Russell and Yohan Croizet before the 2018 season — totaled less than $2 million.

If you’re looking for the reasons the competition has proven insurmountable for MLS clubs — the reasons that Sporting KC still faces an uphill battle despite advancing further than it has before — that’s a good place to start.

“At the end of the day, sometimes money can buy quality, and that quality is depth,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said. “The fact that they can spend a lot more money on their roster gives them the ability to have close proximity between (the starter and backup). That’s a big thing in a tournament because you’re constantly managing two competitions or managing injuries or managing absences.”

The governing of the two competitions has long been a topic — or gripe — of MLS teams. The tournament falls before the commencement of its season, before the teams have had the opportunity to get into a groove. It plays a factor in the early rounds, they say.

But at this point, Sporting KC has played eight matches. They won 7-1 on Saturday. A bit of a groove, perhaps.

The scheduling now is more about freshness. About player management on a game-to-game basis. Vermes pointed to several hurdles that are more significant in MLS with the constraints of a roster confined by a salary cap that Liga MX does not operate with. As he pencils in lineups, Vermes accounts for the congestion of the schedule, the amount of actual travel, the location of the matches, whether his players are serving or have recently served international duty.

It’s less an issue as Liga MX teams advance in CCL. Absent a starter? How about that $1 million backup?

“I’m not saying you don’t have the same quality on your roster, because we have quality players,” Vermes said. “But I’ll go back to it: When you can spend more on the roster from top to bottom, the quality throughout your roster is just different.”

It’s a rule change Vermes would like to see the MLS adopt — the ability to spend more on the lower tiers of the roster yet stay within the cap.

One day.

There’s an understanding that it will take MLS some more time to catch up to their Mexican foes. Founded in 1945, Monterrey is more than three times as old as the Sporting Kansas City franchise. It has a 50,000-seat stadium. There’s a long-standing tradition there.

For now, Sporting KC is operating under a different model. The Champions League places the club in a relatively unfamiliar position.

As clear underdogs.

“I think everyone would be excited from a historical perspective to have a chance to be the first MLS team to win (the tournament),” Vermes said. “But that’s not what we’ve talked about. We’re not getting into any of that history unless we get through this two-leg series. There’s an understanding that that’s a tremendous challenge.”

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