Champions League Countdown | 20 Days: How Sporting and Toluca got here

The month of February has arrived, and with that comes a monumental showdown between Sporting Kansas City and Deportivo Toluca FC in the 2019 Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League Round of 16. Sporting KC will host the first leg at Children’s Mercy Park on Feb. 21 before traveling to Mexico for the decisive second leg on Feb. 28. Tickets to the contest at Children’s Mercy Park are now on sale at as Sporting hosts its earliest competitive match in club history.

In the 20 days leading up to Feb. 21, will rattle off a 20-day Champions League Countdown, hitting all the relevant storylines surrounding the two-legged fixture. From history and geography lessons to number crunching, player matchups and coaching backgrounds, this daily series will set the stage for a pivotal battle in which two successful sides aim to take their first steps toward Champions League glory.

In the first installment of Champions League Countdown, let’s take a look at how the paths of Sporting KC and Toluca ultimately crossed. Both clubs will be making their fourth appearance in the current format of the competition, returning for the first time since 2013-14.

How Sporting KC qualified

Remarkably enough, Sporting’s journey to the 2019 Concacaf Champions League began way back on June 14, 2017. On a hot and humid evening at Children’s Mercy Park, Sporting trounced Minnesota United FC 4-0 in the fourth round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. Manager Peter Vermes’ side wound up winning the tournament for the third time in six seasons—edging the New York Red Bulls 2-1 in the final at Children’s Mercy Park—to secure passage to the 2019 Champions League.

Why, you might ask, did Sporting’s 2017 Open Cup triumph result in a 2019 Champions League berth rather than a 2018 berth? The 2016-17 Champions League marked the last time the tournament was contested with a group stage in the fall and a knockout stage in the spring. It featured four American MLS clubs that qualified for the competition based on their accomplishments in 2015.

The subsequent edition of the Champions League featured the revamped format that we currently see today—eliminating the fall-time group stage and jumping straight into the two-legged knockout rounds in the spring. The 2016-17 tournament was followed by the 2018 edition, which featured four American MLS clubs that qualified based on their 2016 merits.

Thus, the change in format prompted the 2019 Champions League to serve as a “bridge year” so to speak, involving MLS teams that qualified through achievements in either 2017 or 2018. From the 2020 Champions League onward, the competition will involve MLS clubs that qualified based on their merits from the previous season.

To sum it all up, here’s a breakdown of the four American teams representing MLS in the Champions League this spring. Note that Toronto FC, as a Canadian club, can only qualify for the tournament by winning the Canadian Championship, which they did last summer.

Club Qualified Round of 16 Opponent
Sporting KC 2017 U.S. Open Cup champion Deportivo Toluca FC (Mexico)
Houston Dynamo 2018 U.S. Open Cup champion C.D. Guastatoya (Guatemala)
Atlanta United FC 2018 MLS Cup Champion C.S. Herediano (Costa Rica)
New York Red Bulls Non-champions with the best aggregate record in the 2017 and 2018 MLS regular seasons Atletico Pantoja (Dominican Republic)

How Toluca qualified

Unlike Sporting KC, Toluca punched their 2019 Champions League ticket based on a 2018 achievement. Manager Hernan Cristante's side qualified as Liga MX runners-up in the 2018 Clausura season, which ran from January to May of last year. Toluca claimed a first-place finish in the Clausura regular season, posting an 11-3-3 record, but fell 3-2- on aggregate to Santos Laguna in the finals of the Liga MX Championship Stage (basically the equivalent of Mexico's MLS Cup).

The four Mexican representatives in the 2019 Champions League consist of the champions and runners-up of the 2017 Apertura (fall) and 2018 Clausura (spring) seasons, as detailed below.

Club Qualified Round of 16 Opponent
Tigres UANL 2017 Apertura champions Deportivo Saprissa (Costa Rica)
Santos Laguna 2018 Clausura champions C.D. Marathon (Honduras)
Monterrey 2017 Apertura runners-up Alianza FC (El Salvador)
Deportivo Toluca FC 2018 Clausura runners-up Sporting KC (USA)

The Path Ahead

Make no mistake, victory over Toluca would be a tremendous achievement for Sporting. But the road wouldn't get any easier from there. The series winner will advance to the quarterfinals and face either Toronto FC or Panamanian outfit Independiente, traveling for the first leg on March 6 or 7 and hosting the second leg on March 13 or 14.

Toronto FC aren't far removed from their treble-winning 2017 campaign in which they steamrolled to the MLS Cup, Supporters' Shield and Canadian Championship. Independiente may appear less daunting on paper, but Sporting's 3,000-mile trip to Panama would come on the heels of visits to Toluca on Feb. 28 and LAFC on March 3. That's racking up some serious air mileage in a very short amount of time.

The other four teams on Sporting's side of the bracket are 2018 MLS Cup champion Atlanta United FC, Mexican powerhouse and three-time Champions League winner Monterrey, Herediano of Costa Rica and minnows Alianza FC of El Salvador.

2019 Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League Bracket