Champions League Countdown | 2 Days: Ten questions surrounding Thursday's first leg

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 Thursday 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 is rattling 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 sets the stage for a pivotal battle in which two successful sides aim to take their first steps toward Champions League glory.


A countdown that began at 20 days is now down to two. Indeed, the energy and excitement surrounding Thursday’s Concacaf Champions League clash between Sporting Kansas City and Deportivo Toluca FC is as palpable as ever. World-class Children’s Mercy Park will serve as the site for an all-important first-leg clash in the Round of 16, kicking off at 7 p.m. CT.

This fixture packs a level of intrigue that surpasses just about every other Round of 16 matchup. It’s the only MLS vs. Liga MX pairing at this juncture of the 2019 tournament, and it will require both sides to navigate tricky road trips in order to advance.

Sporting’s limited body of work, paired with Toluca’s recent tribulations in Liga MX, make the tie extremely hard to predict. In the space below, we examine 10 questions pertaining to the pivotal first leg in Kansas City.

1. How sharp is Sporting this early in the season?
Manager Peter Vermes’ side ripped opponents to pieces throughout their 2019 preseason, presented by Children’s Mercy. Sporting went 5-0-1 over the course of six scrimmages, outscoring foes 28-4, and are coming off a 4-1 win over MLS rivals Houston Dynamo last Wednesday. But Thursday is a different challenge altogether—one that will see Sporting’s mettle tested in numerous ways. Is the team 90 minutes fit? Are they ready to contend against a Liga MX side in mid-February? We’ll find out at Children’s Mercy Park.

2. Which players will get the starting nod?
Vermes has depth at his disposal, and he’ll have a personnel decision to make Thursday. Competition for spots was hot throughout the preseason, and that remains to be the case heading into this week. Toluca, meanwhile, has tended to favor a two-forward setup at home and a target forward setup on the road. Manager Hernan Cristante has felt recent pressure from his club’s slide and will have to get his team sheet just right.

3. Will Toluca’s slump carry into the Champions League?
That brings us to this: will los Diablos Rojos carry their Liga MX struggles into the Champions League? Sporting will certainly hope so. Toluca are 0-4-1 in their last five league matches, scoring just one goal during that barren spell. Cristante’s men have gone three straight away games without a goal.

4. How will both teams handle the elements?
News flash: it’s going to be chilly, folks. Sporting have plenty of experience playing in cold playoff matches at Children’s Mercy Park. Toluca, on the other hand, have played most of their Liga MX fixtures in 60- or 70-degree warmth. When Kansas City Star reporter Sam McDowell told Vermes on Monday that the Thursday night forecast was 29 degrees, Vermes cheekily replied “I hope it’s colder than that.”

5. Will Toluca be content to defend and counter?
After all, this appears to be one of the strengths for a Toluca side that has labored over the last month. Their brilliant second goal in a 2-0 win over Puebla on Jan. 13, scored by the now-injured Alexis Canelo, underlines just how lethal the side can be on the counter. Throw in the fact that they’re playing far from home and in a hostile environment, and no one would be surprised if Sporting’s opponents bunker in and break.

6. Which players will rise to the occasion?
Both teams have game changers. Toluca boasts a talented squad with the likes of winger Felipe Pardo, attacking midfielder Pablo Barrientos, forwards Enrique Triverio and Emmanuel Gigliotti, and grizzled veterans such as goalkeeper Alfredo Talavera, midfielder Antonio Rios and no-nonsense center back Jonatan Maidana. But Toluca’s whole has been worse than the sum of its parts throughout February. For Sporting, any one of Krisztian Nemeth, Johnny Russell, Daniel Salloi, Gerso Fernandes, Felipe Gutierrez and Graham Zusi are capable of turning the tide with a moment of magic.

7. What is a good first-leg result for Sporting?
This is open for debate. Anything less than a victory would leave some Sporting fans disappointed and concerned going into the second leg at Toluca. At the same time, a 0-0 result wouldn’t be bad either. With the away goals tiebreaker in effect, a home clean sheet would be absolutely massive.

8. Will emotions get the better of either team?
This is a Concacaf competition, after all. Petulance has shrouded Champions League fixtures in the past, and Sporting will be warry not to get dragged into any bating tactics employed by the visitors. Make no mistake, the stakes will be extremely high on Thursday, but that also requires both sides to approach the game with a degree of poise and level-headedness. In series like these, cooler heads prevail more often than not.

9. Are tickets still available?
Yes they are. Visit SeatGeek.com or call 1-888-4KC-GOAL to get your single-game tickets for the matchup. This match is also included in Sporting KC Season Ticket Member packages, and fans can contact their Membership Service Executives with any questions.

10. How can fans watch the match from home?
Thursday's contest, the earliest competitive match in Sporting KC history, will stream live in English on YahooSports.com and the Yahoo Sports app, while a Spanish-language telecast will air live on Univision Deportes. In addition, Sports Radio 810 WHB and ESPN Deportes KC 1480 AM will carry the game over the radio, with 810 WHB airing The Final Whistle postgame show immediately after the match.

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