Five Things 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.
A gargantuan test awaits Thursday as Sporting Kansas City ventures south of the border to meet Mexican side CF Monterrey in the first leg of the 2019 Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League Semifinals. Kickoff at the world-class Estadio BBVA Bancomer is set for 9 p.m. CT with live coverage available on YahooSports.com, the Yahoo Sports app, Univision Deportes, Sports Radio 810 WHB and ESPN Deportes KC 1480 AM.
Sporting has already made history under Manager Peter Vermes, reaching the semifinal stage of North America’s most prestigious competition for the first time, but Thursday represents a challenge unlike previous hurdles posed by Toluca and Independiente. Monterrey are simply one of the best clubs in Mexico, and in order to scalp Rayados over the course of two legs, Sporting will likely have to endure a slew of testing moments in Northern Mexico.
With the stakes as high as they have ever been in Sporting’s international history, here are five narratives to know ahead of the first-leg battle in Monterrey.
1. Final Four
The NCAA Tournament’s crowning weekend isn’t the only Final Four on tap. The Concacaf Champions League has also whittled down to four remaining participants, with Sporting the lone MLS representative alongside Liga MX giants Monterrey, Santos Laguna and Tigres UANL.
This formidable semifinal undertaking is the first mountain Sporting will have to climb in order to become the first MLS club to win the Champions League since its modern era began in 2008. Mexican teams have won the last 11 editions, including an unprecedented run of three straight Monterrey titles from 2011-2013.
Yet if anyone north of the border has what it takes to make history, it just might be Sporting. Vermes boasts a veteran backline, an equally experienced midfield and a red-hot attacking corps. Goalkeeper Tim Melia and Co. have posted four shutouts this season, Gerso Fernandes and Johnny Russell have wreaked havoc on the wings, and arguably no MLS striker is off to a better start in 2019 than Krisztian Nemeth, who has eight goals in seven appearances across all competitions—including a joint-best four in the Champions League.
2. Mighty Monterrey
Rayados own an all-time best three Champions League titles—all collected during a dynastic reign at the start of the decade—and have the quality to add a fourth this time around. First, a look at recent history: Monterrey are 29-6-7 in the Champions League since 2010, including a 17-2-2 mark at home and a 7-2-1 record against MLS opposition. They have never lost to an MLS team in a two-legged series and have won the Champions League every single time they have reached the knockout rounds.
And now, a snapshot of this year’s Monterrey side, coached by Diego Alonso: forward Rogelio Funes Mori leads the team with eight goals in Liga MX, while the likes of Aviles Hurtado, Maxi Meza and Dorlan Pabon round out a lethal offense. Youngsters Jonathan Gonzalez and Carlos Rodriguez add a buzzing bite to the midfield, and a stingy backline features attack-minded fullbacks and Mexican internationals Miguel Layun and Jesus Gallardo. Rayados currently occupy third place in Liga MX with a 6-1-5 record.
3. The Fortress
In addition to wielding a 17-2-2 home record in the Champions League, Rayados are 41-5-20 all-time in Liga MX regular season matches played at Estadio BBVA Bancomer, which opened in 2015 and is slated to host World Cup matches in 2026. The state-of-the-art stadium has landed the nickname “El Gigante de Acero,” Spanish for “The Steel Giant,” due to its stunning exterior aesthetics, and on Thursday night as many as 53,500 fans could pack the venue for the all-important battle.
4. Sitting on Yellows
Neither team will be shorthanded on Thursday due to red card suspension or caution accumulation. However, a handful of players on both teams would miss the second leg next week at Children’s Mercy Park if they receive a first-leg yellow card.
For Sporting, that list includes Nemeth, Felipe Gutierrez, Seth Sinovic and injured forward Daniel Salloi. Should any of them pick up a caution on Thursday, they will be forced to miss the return fixture in Kansas City.
Monterrey’s lengthier list consists of Gallardo, Meza, winger Rodolfo Pizarro, center back Nicolas Sanchez and seldom-used forward Adam Bareiro. Gallardo, Meza and Sanchez would be particularly notable absences in leg two.
5. Rule Refresher
Just like the Round of 16 and Quarterfinals, the away goals rule will be applied in the Semifinals if the aggregate score is tied after the second leg. For example, if Sporting draws Monterrey 1-1 on the road in the first leg and 0-0 at home in the second leg, they will advance by virtue of away goals. If the teams are still even on away goals, a penalty shootout will 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.
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