KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Sporting Kansas City have a new hometown hero – a Homegrown one, at that.
Kevin Ellis, making only his fourth career start – two of them to open this season, with right back Chance Myers slow to return from a groin strain – scored his first competitive goal to lift Sporting to a 1-0 victory over Mexican side Cruz Azul in Wednesday night's opening leg of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals.
In addition to taking the lead in the two-match, total-goals series, Sporting avoided conceding an away goal and would book a semifinal berth with a draw in next week's return leg in Mexico City. SKC would also advance with a one-goal loss, if they score at least once.
Ellis' 17th-minute strike came after he collected a perfectly placed pass off the outside of Claudio Bieler's foot on the left side of Cruz Azul's penalty area. The KC native touched the ball back inside, giving himself space between two defenders, and shot through traffic into the lower left corner of Jesús Corona's goal.
The visitors, playing in front of a sizeable – and vocal – number of their own supporters, missed a golden chance to equalize in the 24th.
Joao Rojas made a well-timed run to collect a ball over the top in Sporting's area, but Rojas made a hash of his first touch and Ike Opara – starting in central defense with Aurélien Collin suspended for caution accumulation – was able to clear the ball for a throw-in.
Bieler nearly doubled Sporting's lead a minute from halftime with a low drive after a long run, but Corona made a sprawling save to his left to keep it 1-0.
Ten minutes after play resumed, it took two goalmouth clearances – neither by keeper Eric Kronberg – to keep hard-charging Cruz Azul from knotting things at 1.
In the 54th minute, Mariano Pavone got around Kronberg and unleashed a low shot that was headed in before Opara deflected it out for a corner. On the ensuing set piece, Marco Fabián's header deflected off Benny Feilhaber and was looping into the goal before left back Seth Sinovic – who missed Sporting's MLS season opener on Saturday with hip tightness – headed it away.
Replays showed the ball hitting Feilhaber in the upper arm, but Salvadoran referee Elmer Bonilla ignored Fabián's shout for a penalty and perhaps a red card.
Then it was Sporting's turn to narrowly miss a scoring opportunity, as Graham Zusi cracked a shot off the crossbar from 20 yards in the 64th minute.
With the assist from his backline, Kronberg recorded his fourth shutout in five CCL matches.
Both teams will be without starters from Wednesday's match in next week's return leg, on yellow-card accumulation. Cruz Azul defender Rogelio Chávez was cautioned in the 24th minute for a hard foul on Paulo Nagamura, Sinovic in the 77th for delaying a restart, and Cruz Azul midfielder Alejandro Castro in the 90th after a double-yellow confrontation with C.J. Sapong.
Sporting KC return to league play on Saturday when they host FC Dallas, then head to Mexico City for the return leg vs. Cruz Azul on March 19.