Five Things: What to know ahead of Sunday's MLS curtain raiser at LAFC

Sporting Kansas City will look to parlay their winning momentum in the Concacaf Champions League into a successful start to the 2019 MLS regular season at 7:30 p.m. CT Sunday when they open the new campaign at Los Angeles Football Club. The star-studded showdown at Banc of California Stadium will be televised nationally on ESPN and ESPN Deportes, while local radio calls will air on Sports Radio 810 WHB and ESPN Deportes KC 1480 AM.

The MLS curtain raiser for both clubs is the final fixture of a mouthwatering Week 1 slate as Sporting and LAFC strive to build upon their respective achievements of 2018. Supporters are welcome to watch parties for the match at any of Sporting’s newly announced pub partner locations—including No Other Pub in the Kansas City Power & Light District—while fans can also utilize the new Sporting KC app for in-game updates and exclusive offers.

Without further delay, let’s jump into everything you must know about Sunday’s battle in Los Angeles.

1. Flying High

Led by 11th-year Manager Peter Vermes, Sporting have made history before the 2019 MLS campaign has even kicked off. The club is fresh off a 5-0 hammering of Deportivo Toluca FC in the Concacaf Champions League Round of 16, setting an all-time tournament record for the largest aggregate victory by an MLS side over a Liga MX team. Thursday’s 2-0 win in Toluca gave Sporting their first-ever win on Mexican soil and marked the first time that an American team has ousted a Mexican foe in a two-legged Concacaf series with the second leg played in Mexico.

Forwards Gerso Fernandes and Krisztian Nemeth have led the way, scoring twice in as many matches, while a veteran backline consisting of goalkeeper Tim Melia and defenders Matt Besler, Andreu Fontas, Seth Sinovic and Graham Zusi have registered consecutive clean sheets. With Ilie Sanchez, Roger Espinoza and Felipe Gutierrez patrolling the center of the park—and plenty of depth at Vermes’ disposal—Sporting fans have every right to feel optimistic in the early stages of the year.

2. Sporting Superiority

Sporting swept the 2018 series against LAFC and were the only team to defeat head coach Bob Bradley’s men twice. This included a 2-0 win at Banc of California Stadium on Aug. 11, 2018, which remains LAFC’s only regular-season home loss to date. Fernandes and Ilie scored to help their team extend an impressive run in the state of California: Sporting are 5-0-2 in the Golden State since June of 2016, scoring 13 goals while allowing only three.

The dramatic return fixture at Children’s Mercy Park took place on Decision Day last fall. In a pivotal regular-season finale on Oct. 28, 10-man Sporting struck through Roger Espinoza and Daniel Salloi to overcome Carlos Vela’s second-half penalty kick and prevail 2-1 to secure a first-place conference finish for the first time since 2012.

3. Stars of Hollywood

LAFC have lofty expectations of their own after a successful 2018 debut in MLS. Their 57 points last season were the most ever by an expansion team as three different attackers—Carlos Vela, Adama Diomande and Diego Rossi—all hit double-digit regular season goals. The prolific triumvirate paced LAFC to a conference-best and expansion-team record 68 goals behind the leadership of Bradley, who is the league’s winningest active head coach ahead of No. 2 Vermes.

The new kids on the Hollywood block placed third last year, going 16-9-9 to become the fifth MLS expansion side to reach the playoffs, but suffered a 3-2 home loss to Real Salt Lake in the single-elimination Knockout Round. Playmaker Lee Nguyen and forward Christian Ramirez join the aforementioned Vela, Diomande and Rossi to form a potent offense, while MLS veterans Walker Zimmerman, Steven Beitashour and Jordan Harvey patrol a defense that will aim to improve from last year’s lukewarm showing.

4. Globe Trotters

Sporting are riding high on confidence at the moment, but the team’s mettle will be tested by an immensely demanding travel schedule over the next few days. Vermes’ side flew from Toluca to Los Angeles on Friday and will take a 3,000-mile flight from Los Angeles to Panama City on Monday ahead of next week’s Concacaf Champions League quarterfinal first leg at Independiente in La Chorrera, Panama. Sporting’s depth will likely be on display as the squad copes with the demands of three away games in three different time zones in three separate countries—all in the space of a single week.

5. Captain’s Crew

Sporting captain and Kansas City native Matt Besler ranks first all-time for the club in just about every metric of longevity, including games played, starts and minutes—both in MLS action and across all competitions. On Sunday, the 32-year-old is a candidate to reach another notable milestone with his 300th competitive start for his hometown side.

Besler has a new center back mate in 2019, as Spaniard Andreu Fontas has filled in for the departed Ike Opara. Fontas, a disciple of FC Barcelona’s famed La Masia Academy alongside Ilie, has delivered two solid Champions League outings thus far, but the partnership in central defense is likely to face an even sterner test this weekend as LAFC intend to unleash its full arsenal of attacking weapons.

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