When the draw for the 2019 Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League Round of 16 took place last December in Miami, it was widely reasoned that Sporting Kansas City had become victims of bad luck.
After all, Sporting was the only MLS club placed in Pot 2 and paired against a Liga MX team in the opening round of the tournament. Before the competition had even started, Manager Peter Vermes’ men were behind the proverbial eight ball.
Facing an in-season and well-oiled Toluca side in the first competitive match of the new year? Not ideal. Traveling at 8,750 altitude for the second leg in a country the team has never won? Downright brutal.
You see, Sporting had every excuse it needed to treat this Toluca series as an extension of preseason and instead prioritize the start of the 2019 MLS campaign. Perhaps this Champions League mountain was too tough to climb from the get-go. Perhaps it was better to focus on LAFC and the Philadelphia Union out of the gates and hope for a better draw in another Champions League edition somewhere down the road.
No chance in Blue Hell.
Sporting tacked their Round of 16 challenge head-on, blitzing Toluca with a 5-0 aggregate win following Thursday’s comprehensive 2-0 victory at a stunned Estadio Nemesio Diez in Toluca, Mexico.
Seven days after shredding the Red Devils to the tune of 3-0 at Children’s Mercy Park, Sporting received goals from Gerso Fernandes and Krisztian Nemeth for the second straight game to secure a result that makes all kinds of eye-opening history.
At the forefront, this was Sporting’s first triumph in the country of Mexico. The team had lost on each of its four previous visits, scoring five goals and conceding 17, but Thursday saw a reverse in fortune. Fernandes fired Sporting ahead in the eighth minute—Sporting had never led on Mexican soil prior to that point—and Nemeth sealed the deal with a second-half penalty as the visitors delivered another dominant performance in which Toluca failed to register a single shot on target.
Sporting helped MLS clubs improve their Champions League record to 5-41-9 all-time in Mexico, joining Toronto FC, the New York Red Bulls, FC Dallas and Seattle Sounders FC as teams who have prevailed on the road against Liga MX outfits.
MLS TEAMS WINNING ON MEXICAN SOIL IN CHAMPIONS LEAGUE
|Aug. 17, 2011||FC Dallas||at Pumas UNAM||W 1-0||Group Stage|
|Aug. 23, 2011||Seattle Sounders FC||at Monterrey||W 1-0||Group Stage|
|March 6, 2018||New York Red Bulls||at Tijuana||W 2-0||Quarterfinal Leg 1|
|April 25, 2018||Toronto FC||at Guadalajara||W 2-1||Final Leg 2|
|Feb. 28, 2019||Sporting Kansas City||at Toluca||W 2-0||Round of 16 Leg 2|
Thursday also marked the first time that an American team has won a two-legged Champions League series versus a Liga MX side in which the second leg was played in Mexico. The only other MLS club to achieve this rare feat was Toronto FC, which did so twice last year.
MLS TEAMS WINNING TWO-LEGGED SERIES WITH LEG 2 IN MEXICO
|Tournament||Team||Opponent||Stage||Leg 1||Leg 2|
|2018 Champions League||Toronto||Tigres UANL||Quarterfinals||W 2-1 (h)||L 2-3 (a)|
|2018 Champions League||Toronto||Club America||Semifinals||W 3-1 (h)||T 1-1 (a)|
|2019 Champions League||Sporting Kansas City||Toluca||Round of 16||W 3-0 (h)||W 2-0 (a)|
As if simply winning the series wasn’t impressive enough, the rampant manner in which Sporting swatted aside Toluca is what truly turned the heads of national media. As soccer statistics guru Paul Carr pointed out Thursday night, the 5-0 aggregate victory was the largest by an MLS team over a Liga MX club in a two-legged Concacaf series.
Largest aggregate wins by @MLS over Liga MX in a two-legged CONCACAF Cup series:— Paul Carr (@PaulCarr) March 1, 2019
2019: Sporting KC 5-0 Toluca
2018: New York 5-1 Tijuana
2018: Toronto FC 4-3 América
The comfortable aggregate triumph was sealed a week after Sporting became the second American team in Champions League history to defeat a Mexican side by three or more goals.
Such was the nature of Sporting’s supremacy in leg two that Toluca’s fans began crying out “Olé!” every time the visitors completed a pass. Few could have imagined proceedings to play out in such away, especially given the fact that Sporting were playing at their highest altitude ever in a competitive game.
Estadio Nemesio Diez in Toluca is perched at a lung-busting 8,750 feet. The first times Sporting visited a Mexican opponent at altitude, things didn’t go so well. But with a concentrated preseason under their belts—and with the help of altitude tents at bedtime—Sporting made what seemed impossible look routine.
SPORTING KC INTERNATIONAL MATCHES PLAYED ABOVE 3,000 FEET
|Toluca, MEX||Toluca||8,750||02/28/19||W 2-0||Concacaf Champions League|
|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|
|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|
“We didn’t come just to sit back and absorb pressure,” Vermes said postgame. “We came to play our way and (Toluca’s fans) appreciated it. I think they appreciated the entertainment aspect of it. That’s always a very positive thing, especially coming into a game like this and a place like this because this club has an incredible history. We have a ton of respect for them, and it was not an easy game by any means today.”
Sporting has made a strong statement of intent in the Concacaf Champions League, make no mistake. But don’t expect the team to bask in the limelight of such an achievement. After all, Vermes’ side faces a wildly quick turnaround with Sunday’s MLS season opener at LAFC followed by the first leg of the Concacaf Champions League Quarterfinals at Independiente in Panama on Wednesday.
“It’s not going to be easy, but the guys have worked hard and as I said before, there’s an unselfishness within the group to understand that everybody is going to have to have their impact on the team if we’re going to continue to move forward,” Vermes said. “Now we’ve got a big game against LAFC. They’re a very good team, we’re playing at their place and it’s their home opener. So it’s not like we’re dropping the level of game or anything—we’re taking it up a notch.”