MLS Cup holder Sporting Kansas City and current Liga MX leader Cruz Azul square off Wednesday at Sporting Park in the first leg of the Concacaf Champions League quarterfinals. SKC actually earned its slot in the 2013-14 competition by virtue of its finish in the 2012 MLS season when it won the Supporters' Shield, not the MLS Cup title it won three months ago, but setting aside the specifics, this is an excellent measure of the respective leagues.
Cruz Azul, which nailed down its spot by reaching the 2013 Clausura finals that it lost on penalties to Club America, is just past the midpoint of its 2014 Clausura campaign. It lost Saturday for the first time after opening with eight wins and a tie. SKC has only one competitive match in its legs, a 1-0 loss in Seattle Saturday during which head coach Peter Vermes rested several starters.
Vermes expects to field central midfielder Uri Rosell for the Cruz Azul match, and is waiting on outside backs Chance Myers and Seth Sinovic. All three are nursing injuries and sat out the Seattle game, as did forward Claudio Bieler and midfielder Paulo Nagamura. Against the Sounders, Josh Gardner played left back and Kevin Ellis took over on the right.
Rosell suffered a sprained ankle early in the MLS Cup final and his only game action since then is as a sub for Catalonia during an exhibition in late December. Lawrence Olum took the central role against Seattle, with Benny Feilhaber on the left and Graham Zusi on the right. Rosell’s experience and skill would be a valuable asset against a midfield that includes Argentine Christian Gimenez, who scored off the bench 10 days ago in a 1-0 defeat of second-place Toluca, and left-sided Pablo de la Mora, who is tied with another Argentine, forward Mauro Formica, for the team lead in goals with four.
Coach Luis Fernando Tena has two decades of experience in the Mexican league and guided Mexico to the gold medal at the 2012 Summer Olympics. He sat out several regulars in a 3-0 loss to Tigres Saturday for which U.S. international Jose Torres scored the third goal. Cruz Azul arrived in Kansas City Monday.
“Sporting KC is a very tough team to play against," Tena, who coached Mexico in the 2-0 loss to the USA in Columbus in September 2013, told SportingKC.com. "We have studied their style of play since they won the championship. They haven’t changed much this year as for players besides their solid and dynamic style, which will make it harder for us.”
That “solid and dynamic” style includes a lot of fouls. SKC led the league in fouls committed on its way to the title last year and was whistled up 25 times in Seattle. One of its leading protagonists, defender Aurelien Collin, is suspended for the first leg. He could be replaced by Ike Opara, who entered the game at CenturyLink Field in the 86nd minute and inadvertently set up Seattle’s goal by heading the ball meekly during a goalmouth scramble. Chad Barrett lashed it into the net for the winner.
One positive aspect of the defeat was the play of Eric Kronberg, handed the task of replacing keeper Jimmy Nielsen. Kronberg served as backup to the Danish veteran for the past three seasons and has taken over for the man who led SKC to the Open Cup title in 2012 and MLS Cup last year.
The former Cal goalie has been with Kansas City since 2006 but had played just five league matches prior to Saturday, and he persevered through a busy, pressure-packed 90 minutes in slick, rainy conditions. His education will continue against Cruz Azul, which can slice up teams through measured approach play or attack quickly through the channels. It leads Liga MX in goals with 18.