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 SeatGeek.com as Sporting hosts its earliest competitive match in club history.
In the 20 days leading up to Feb. 21, SportingKC.com 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 exactly two weeks’ time, Sporting Kansas City will play its earliest competitive match ever. The first-leg fixture against Toluca falls on Feb. 21, raising the distinct possibility that Children’s Mercy Park will be packed with supporters decked in winter clothing a la MLS Cup 2013.
Seven days later, Manager Peter Vermes’ side will venture south of the border to Toluca for leg two. In doing so, another all-time superlative will take place.
The 30,000-seat Estadio Nemesio Diez, nicknamed La Bombonera—in Spanish, the Chocolate Box—is perched at a dizzying 8,750 feet in altitude. At well over a mile and a half high, the stadium has come to land another nickname over the years as one of the toughest places to play in Mexico: El Infierno, simply translated as Hell.
As you might have guessed, Sporting’s trip to Toluca will be the highest altitude for a match in club history. As if the challenge of visiting a Liga MX side already two months into its season wasn’t hard enough, Sporting will be fighting the battle at an elevation two times as high as Salt Lake City, Utah.
Below is a chart of highest-altitude matches Sporting has played in their 23-year history. Including contests at Real Salt Lake and the Colorado Rapids, the team has played 61 times above 3,000 feet in elevation. In those fixtures, Sporting has an 11-35-15 record across all competitions—including a 1-6-0 mark outside of the country.
Sporting KC matches played above 3,000 feet (all-time)
|Mexico City, MEX||Cruz Azul||7,200||03/19/14||L 5-1||Concacaf Champions League|
|Morelia, MEX||Morelia||6,299||08/07/02||L 6-1||Concacaf Champions' Cup|
|Denver, CO||Colorado Rapids||5,280||37 times||6-20-11||MLS, Playoffs, Open Cup|
|Salt Lake City, UT||Real Salt Lake||4,327||17 times||4-9-4||MLS, Playoffs, Open Cup|
|San Jose, CRC||Deportivo Saprissa||3,845||03/17/05
|Concacaf Champions' Cup
Concacaf Champions League
|Torreon, MEX||Santos Laguna||3,675||08/08/01
Concacaf Champions' Cup
|Tegucigalpa, HON||C.D. Olimpia||3,248||08/27/13||W 2-0||Concacaf Champions League|
A few takeaways from the table above.
- In their six highest-elevation matches played outside of the United States, Sporting are 0-6-0 with six goals scored and 21 conceded.
- A 2-0 victory at Olimpia in August 2013 is the only match Sporting has won on foreign soil above 3,000 feet.
- Sporting are 10-29-15 all-time at Colorado and Real Salt Lake in all competitions, including a 6-20-11 mark at mile-high Colorado.
- The two times Sporting played above a mile high in Mexico, things didn't go well: a 6-1 loss to Morelia in 2001 was followed by a 5-1 loss to Cruz Azul in 2014.
In conclusion, nothing—literally nothing—about Sporting's trek to Toluca will be easy. The club is looking for its first result in Mexico, having lost the previous four, and will have to do so in the thinning air of almost 8,800 feet.
Nevertheless, Vermes is optimistic that his side has what it takes to successfully climb the proverbial mountain.
"If we prepare well, we’ll give ourselves a good shot in that series," Vermes told media last month. "Obviously we have some hurdles to overcome in the fact that this will be our first real game [on Feb. 21]. And a week later we play at their place at [8,750 feet] altitude. All of those things are going to be hurdles, but I also think that we have the ability to overcome all of them.
“With a very consistent group returning, hopefully that will help us get back to the way we play very quickly and we’ll be able to deal with some situations that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to.”