With their backs against the wall, Sporting Kansas City delivered one heck of a counterpunch on Thursday night at drizzly Children's Mercy Park.
Krisztian Nemeth bagged a brace and Roger Espinoza tallied his first goal at the club international level as Sporting defeated Independiente 3-0 to reach the Concacaf Champions League Semifinals for the first time in team history, overturning a 2-1 deficit to prevail 4-2 on aggregate against the plucky Panamanians.
Thursday's thriller sets up a monumental battle against Mexican giants Monterrey in the next round of North America’s most prestigious club tournament. As the lone MLS representative in the Champions League semifinal field, Sporting will visit Monterrey for the first leg at Estadio BBVA Bancomer before hosting Los Rayados in the decisive return fixture.
Champions League semifinal windows are slated for April 2-4 and April 9-11, with exact dates and kickoff times to be announced in the near term. Tickets for the second-leg matchup at Children's Mercy Park are included in Sporting KC Season Ticket Member packages and are now on sale at SeatGeek.com.
But before we look ahead to a mouthwatering semifinal series with Monterrey, let's look back on what made Thursday night so special.
At the forefront, it marked just fourth time ever that Sporting flipped a first-leg deficit to win a two-legged series on aggregate. The first such instance occurred in 2002, when Kansas City ousted Santos Laguna in the quarterfinals of the 2002 Concacaf Champions' Cup. The other two unfolded at the conference semifinal stage of the 2004 and 2013 MLS Cup Playoffs.
OVERTURNING FIRST-LEG DEFICIT TO WIN ON AGGREGATE
(SPORTING KC ALL-TIME, ALL COMPETITIONS)
|Competition||Opponent||Leg 1||Leg 2|
|2002 Concacaf Champions' Cup Quarterfinals||Santos Laguna||L 0-1 away||W 2-0 home|
|2004 Western Conference Semifinals||San Jose Earthquakes||L 0-2 away||W 3-0 home|
|2013 Eastern Conference Semifinals||New England Revolution||L 1-2 away||W 3-1 home|
|2019 Concacaf Champions League Quarterfinals||Independiente||L 1-2 away||W 3-0 home|
Leading the way on Thursday was Hungarian striker Krisztian Nemeth, who is off to a scintillating start in 2019 with five goals across all competitions. Sporting dominated from start to finish, but an inspired performance from Independiente goalkeeper Jose Guerra kept the hosts off the scoresheet until the 74th minute.
With anxiety running high at Children's Mercy Park, Nemeth provided the cathartic breakthrough with a sweetly hit volley off a headed pass from fellow countryman Botond Barath. Espinoza doubled the lead seven minutes later, and Nemeth notched his second goal of the night on 86 minutes to seal the triumph.
Nemeth, who first starred for Sporting in 2015 and returned to the team last summer, entered the 2019 season with zero international goals for the club. Remarkably, he has already vaulted into a tie for first place on Kansas City's all-time scoring chart in international competitions.
TOP GOAL SCORERS IN INTERNATIONAL COMPETITIONS
(SPORTING KC ALL-TIME)
|Eight players tied||2|
The in-form 30-year-old is also firmly in the running for the 2019 Champions League Golden Boot honor. Nemeth is tied for the tournament lead with four goals alongside Enner Valencia of Tigres UANL. Nemeth is one of three players in the table below, joining Julio Furch of Santos Laguna and Daniel Royer of the Red Bulls, who has scored in three separate Champions League fixtures this winter.
TOP GOAL SCORERS IN 2019 CHAMPIONS LEAGUE
|Enner Valencia||Tigres UANL||4||--||3||1||--|
|Javier Correa||Santos Laguna||3||3||--||--||--|
|Julio Furch||Santos Laguna||3||1||1||1||--|
|Josef Martinez||Atlanta United FC||3||--||2||--||1|
|Daniel Royer||New York Red Bulls||3||1||1||--||1|
While Nemeth may have stolen Thursday night headlines, he wasn't the only player whose involvement prompted a re-writing of the club record books. The left side of Sporting's defense, as it so often has in the past, featured captain Matt Besler and fellow veteran Seth Sinovic. The Kansas City natives entered a tie with current assistant coach Kerry Zavagnin for the most international appearances in team history.
MOST APPEARANCES IN INTERNATIONAL COMPETITIONS
(SPORTING KC ALL-TIME)
Any immediate rest for Sporting will have to wait, as the club will now travel west for Sunday's MLS matchup against the Colorado Rapids at Dick's Sporting Goods Park. The St. Patrick's Day fixture will kick off at 8 p.m. CT, with FOX Sports Kansas City and FOX Sports Midwest Plus televising three hours of live coverage beginning with Sporting KC Live presented by Bud Light at 7:30 p.m. CT. Local radio broadcasts will also air on ESPN 94.5 FM and ESPN Deportes KC 1480 AM. Colorado’s roster features three former Sporting players in Benny Feilhaber, Kei Kamara and Diego Rubio.