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.
Unique challenges await Sporting Kansas City and Deportivo Toluca FC ahead of their Champions League battle later this month.
Both sides are set to make their highly anticipated returns to the prestigious competition, but in order for them to emerge from the month of February still swimming, Sporting and Toluca will have to overcome a series of obstacles posed by the matchup.
The hurdles facing Sporting, however, are different than those that Toluca will have to navigate. Time to break down the factors that complicate this marquee Champions League fixture.
Sporting Kansas City
The Preseason Factor
Alas, the challenge that so many Major League Soccer teams have failed to cope with in the past. The timing of late-winter Champions League matchups between MLS and Liga MX sides usually always favors the latter. While MLS teams like Sporting KC are fresh out of preseason with zero competitive matches under their belts, Liga MX clubs like Toluca have two months of regular-season action under their belts. The fitness, tactics and cohesion of Mexican outfits tends to be sharper, hence an inherent advantage.
As chronicled in Thursday’s edition of the Champions League Countdown, the second leg in Toluca will be Sporting’s highest-altitude match in club history. Estadio Nemesio Diez sits at a lofty elevation of 8,750 feet, twice as high as Salt Lake City and more than 3,000 feet higher than Denver. It’s not outrageous to suggest this will be the toughest physical challenge Sporting has ever faced.
Second Leg Away
It’s not the most pronounced form of homefield advantage, but Toluca will nonetheless have the benefit of hosting the decisive second leg in Mexico. That puts upmost impetus on Sporting to secure a win in the first leg at Children’s Mercy Park on Feb. 21. A draw or a loss at home would put Manager Peter Vermes’ men squarely behind the eight-ball.
Up Against History
We revisited the head-to-head history between MLS and Liga MX clubs on Feb. 2, but here’s a quick primer. An MLS team has never won the Champions League in its current format. Mexican clubs have won all 10 tournaments since 2008, and until last year, MLS outfits were a woeful 2-18 in two-legged Champions League series against Liga MX opponents from 2008-2017. Last year saw improvement, with MLS sides going 3-3 versus their Mexican counterparts for more wins than the previous nine years combined.
The Liga MX Schedule
While Toluca has the benefit of being two months into their Clausura campaign, that also means they must cope with the travel demands of matches on all sides of the Champions League series.
In fact, Toluca’s trip to Kansas City is sandwiched by two domestic road trips. Los Diablos Rojos visit Leon on Feb. 16, Sporting KC on Feb. 21 and Santos Laguna on Feb. 24 ahead of their home tilt with Sporting at the end of the month. That travel schedule certainly doesn’t do Toluca any favors.
Kansas City in the Winter
Children’s Mercy Park is widely regarded one of the best American soccer venues and one of the greatest atmospheres in MLS. You can bet the stadium will be rocking on Feb. 21, but that won’t be anything new for a Toluca outfit well accustomed to hostile environments. Instead, it might be the harsh Kansas City weather that really tests their mettle.
Kansas City’s long-range forecast on Feb. 21 calls for a high of 33 degrees and a low of 23. Most of Toluca’s matches have been played in 60-to-70-degree weather throughout the early winter. Safe to say it won’t be as comfortable in the Blue Hell.
Weight of Expectation
The oddsmakers will have Toluca favored to win the series. Toluca’s fans, and Liga MX as a whole, will expect that exact outcome. While Sporting has house money on its side, los Diablos Rojos are facing the pressures of high expectations in this tournament.
Slumping into February
Since opening the 2019 Clausura campaign with consecutive wins, Toluca has suffered three straight shutout defeats. The team is taking a 280-minute scoreless streak into Sunday’s contest with Cruz Azul, and if results don’t improve for manager Hernan Cristante’s men, that lingering pressure will only amplify by the time they travel to Kansas City.