Five Things, presented by Keith + Associates Dentistry, is a weekly series on SportingKC.com that highlights the top storylines, players to watch and matchday programming ahead of each game throughout the season.
Much to the satisfaction of players, coaches and fans alike, a fleeting offseason has come and gone. Sporting Kansas City soccer is back.
Children's Mercy Park lifts the curtains on the 2019 season Thursday when Manager Peter Vermes' men host Mexican outfit Deportivo Toluca FC in the first leg of the Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League Round of 16 at 7 p.m. CT. Tickets for the match—included in Sporting KC Season Ticket Member packages—remain available at SeatGeek.com as Sporting and Toluca aim to take an aggregate lead into next week’s second leg in Mexico.
With a palpable excitement surrounding this highly anticipated battle between North American heavyweights, let’s dive into our first 2019 edition of Five Things, presented by Keith + Associates Dentistry.
1. Hot in the Desert
While would be foolish to place too much stock in preseason results, the team appears to have built a solid foundation in Arizona. Sporting went 5-0-1 in six scrimmages, outscoring foes 28-4, and are coming off a 4-1 win against MLS rivals and fellow Champions League participants Houston Dynamo last Wednesday. Striker Krisztian Nemeth led the way with five goals, Johnny Russell bagged four, Gerso Fernandes tallied three assists and evergreen right back Graham Zusi amassed two goals and three assists.
It’s reasonable to think that Sporting’s quick turnaround—their offseason lasted a mere 83 days—will have the team gelling far earlier than normal, and that can only help their bid for a sustained run in the Champions League. With Sporting’s cohesion and fitness levels well ahead of schedule, a short offseason and accelerated preseason just might be what the doctor ordered versus Toluca.
2. Struggle Bus
Are Sporting catching Toluca at the right time? Los Diablos Rojos began the 2019 Clausura brightly, posting a pair of multi-goal wins to go top of the table after Week 2. The club has spiraled downward since then, going 0-4-1 in their last five games with just a single goal scored. Manager Hernan Cristante’s men now occupy 15th place in the standings and face a real danger of missing the Liga MX playoffs for the first time since the 2016 Clausura, which was Cristante’s first season in charge.
3. Dethroning Mexico
The fact that an MLS team has never won the Champions League in its current format is well documented. Mexican clubs have won all 10 tournaments since 2008, and until last year, MLS sides were a woeful 2-18 in two-legged Champions League series against Liga MX opponents from 2008-2017.
But the 2018 tournament saw a noticeable shift—one that will give Sporting KC, and MLS, upmost hope. Last year, MLS clubs went a collective 3-3 in Champions League knockout series versus Liga MX sides. That gave the league more such wins in 2018 than the previous nine tournaments combined.
4. Know the Format
Sporting are no strangers to the aggregate-goal, knockout-style format, and in order to become the first MLS club to win the Champions League, Vermes’ side will have to navigate four separate rounds of two-legged series. A total of 16 teams will contest for the 2019 Champions League—including four each from the United States and Mexico. These clubs will play in a fixed, knockout-style bracket through the final. Every Champions League matchup will be contested over two legs on a home-and-away basis.
In the round of 16, quarterfinals and semifinals, the away goals rule will be applied if the aggregate score is tied after the second leg. For example, if Sporting draws Toluca 0-0 at home in the first leg and 1-1 on the road in the second leg, they will advance by virtue of away goals. If still deadlocked, a penalty shootout will be used to determine the winner.
Take note: if the series is tied through two legs, an additional 30 minutes of extra time will not be played. It’s straight to penalties after 180 minutes.
5. How to Follow
Can’t make it to Children’s Mercy Park for the earliest match in club history? Worry not. The contest will stream live in English on YahooSports.com and the Yahoo Sports app, while a Spanish-language telecast will air live on Univision Deportes. In addition, Sports Radio 810 WHB and ESPN Deportes KC 1480 AM will carry the game over the radio, with 810 WHB airing The Final Whistle postgame show immediately after the match.
Keith + Associates Dentistry Fact
The average American spends 38.5 total days brushing his or her teeth over a lifetime.