MLS powerhouses close out week with toughest tests

Atlanta United and Sporting Kansas City are arguably the deepest MLS teams in the 2019 Concacaf Champions League, but they face the two toughest tests in the first leg of the round of 16 that wraps up on Thursday night.

Atlanta United is the reigning MLS champion, but it has to open its 2019 season in Costa Rica, where MLS teams have never won in four games in the knockout stage of the Concacaf Champions League.

Sporting KC had the bad luck of being the only MLS team to draw an Mexican team, and SKC manager Peter Vermes says the goal on Thursday night at Children's Mercy Park will simply be to be competitive.

Herediano vs. Atlanta United. The contrasts between Atlanta United and Herediano are sharp.

Atlanta is in its third season; Herediano was founded 97 years ago and won the first Costa Rican national championship.

The Five Stripes are making their Concacaf Champions League debut; Herediano is playing in its 15th regional club championship.

Atlanta United arrived in Costa Rica with a new big-name star in Pity Martinez and new big-name coach in Dutchman Frank de Boer, but the Five Stripes won't have an easy game at the Estadio Eladio Rosabal Cordero, which holds only 8,500 fans.

Tuesday's results in the Concacaf Champions League show what awaits an MLS team that isn't prepared -- Toronto FC lost at Panama's CAI, 4-0 -- and what Costa Rica teams are capable of at home -- Saprissa beat Mexico's Tigres, 1-0.

“I think we have more quality," de Boer said at the pre-game press conference, "but more quality doesn’t always win. If you don’t put the same energy into the game as them, then we’re going to have a very difficult evening, that’s for sure.”

Atlanta United:
Probable Starting XI: Guzan; Gressel, Gonzalez Pirez, Parkhurst, Robinson, Shea; Remedi, Larentowicz; P.Martinez, J.Martinez, Barco.

2019 Roster (30 players)

Goalkeepers (3): Brad Guzan, Alec Kann, Brendan Moore (Rochdale/ENG).
Defenders (10): Mikey Ambrose, George Bello, Franco Escobar, Jon Gallagher, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Jose Hernandez, Michael Parkhurst, Florentin Pogba (Genclerbirligi /TUR), Miles Robinson, Brek Shea (Vancouver).
Midfielders (10): Ezequiel Barco, Andrew Carleton, Chris Goslin, Julian Gressel, Kevin Kratz, Jeff Larentowicz, Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez (River Plate/ARG), Darlington Nagbe, Dion Pereira (Watford/ENG), Eric Remedi.
Forwards (7): Lagos Kunga, Josef Martinez, Patrick Okonkwo, Brandon Vazquez, Tito Villalba, Gordon Wild, Romario Williams.

Sporting KC vs. Toluca. As the lowest-ranked MLS team based on Concacaf's index of past performances by teams in its slot, Sporting KC was dropped into Pot 2 and assured of facing a Mexican team in the first round.

It drew Toluca, which means it must play the first leg at home and then travel to play Los Diablos Rojos at 8,750 feet in the second leg.

"Let's be honest, Mexican teams have all won this tournament," said Vermes. "An American team has not, so as of right now we're just trying to stay competitive."

Toluca has been struggling of late -- picking up just one point in its last five Liga MX games -- but it will pose a huge challenge for Sporting KC, which will be playing its first game.

"Just making sure we can stay in the game because we haven't played a competitive game yet is going to be a big focus or us for the 90 minutes," said Vermes. "If any way, shape of form we can take advantage of being at home, then we'll do that, but I don't know if it is feasible at this point not having played games. It's about us staying competitive against a team in the middle of their season."

Sporting KC:
Probable Starting XI: Melia; Zusi, Besler, Fontas, Sinovic; Espinoza, Gutierrez, Ilie; Fernandes, Nemeth, Russell.

2019 Roster (26 players)
Goalkeepers (3): Eric Dick, Tim Melia, Adrian Zendejas.
Defenders (10): Botond Barath (Honved/HUN), Matt Besler, Andreu Fontas, Jaylin Lindsey, Jimmy Medranda, Abdul Rwatubyaye (Rayon Sports/RWA), Seth Sinovic, Graham Smith, Rodney Wallace (NYCFC), Graham Zusi.
Midfielders (7): Gianluca Busio, Yohan Croizet, Roger Espinoza, Felipe Gutierrez, Ilie, Wan Kuzain, Kelyn Rowe (New England).
Forwards (6): Gerso Fernandes, *Tyler Freeman (academy), Erik Hurtado (Vancouver), Krisztian Nemeth, Johnny Russell, Daniel Salloi.
*2019 Homegrown signing.

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