KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Sporting Kansas City don't just need a win in the first leg of their CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal against Cruz Azul (Wednesday, 8 pm ET, Fox Sports 2). To give themselves the best shot at advancing, they need to keep from conceding an away goal to their Liga MX opponents.
And they might have to do it with only one regular in their back four, with center back Aurelien Collin suspended for caution accumulation and fullbacks Seth Sinovic (hip tightness) and Chance Myers (groin strain) still questionable for the match at Sporting Park.
“There's still some question marks there, unfortunately,” manager Peter Vermes said during a news conference following Tuesday's training session. “I haven't made my mind up, but there's still some question marks there. Today was not a full hard day, but there still is a lot that has to take place.”
No matter who's playing there, center back and new captain Matt Besler said, the burden of controlling pace in Wednesday's home leg will fall on the back line.
“I'm biased, but I think the back line is the most important part,” Besler said. “It anchors the team, and whoever's back there with me, I think it's our job to manage the game. We have to find the right moments in the game to step up and press high, but we also have to know the right moments to control the game and to slow it down a little bit.
“This game is not going to be back-and-forth, up-and-down for 90 straight minutes,” he added. “It never is. It's impossible. We have to adjust as a team. We have to be able to slow the game down and keep possession. It's up to the defenders, and specifically the two center backs, to choose when those moments are.”
Vermes said Tuesday that he hadn't decided whether to start Ike Opara or Lawrence Olum in Collin's place. Opara made a career-high 15 starts last season, usually when Besler was on US national team duty but also when Collin was serving his two caution suspensions. Olum – while used mostly as a defensive midfielder – has big-match experience in central defense, having played there when Sporting won the 2012 U.S. Open Cup.
“Ike's had some good experience last season, and he played tremendously well,” Besler said. “When he's in there, he gives us a very strong presence. His ability on the ball has improved a lot over the past season, so he should go into the game with a lot of confidence. Lo's a guy who can play in that position as well. He gives us that dimension on the ball, where he slows the game down and makes the right decisions with the ball.”
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Myers and Sinovic both missed Saturday's season-opening 1-0 loss in Seattle, with Kevin Ellis starting on the right side and Josh Gardner on the left. Mechack Jerome, who was a late sub in that match, could also be selected at fullback on either side.
No matter who's out there, Besler said, Sporting's back-line philosophy won't change.
“It's going to be a team effort for the back line,” he said. “It always is. There's never one guy that always steps in and just completely takes over the game defensively. The way that that we were built, it's one guy steps up and the other three cover. Whoever's in there with us, along the back line, it's going to be the same system of covering each other and working as a unit.”
Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com.