This time, Sporting Kansas City looked like a team trying to sort itself out early in the season – at altitude, against a regional power in full late-season form.
And as long as the CONCACAF Champions League schedule matches up with Liga MX's and conflicts with MLS' season, Sporting manager Peter Vermes said, that discrepancy is going to pose a challenge for the latter league's clubs in the knockout stage.
“You're still getting your season started off, and you're trying to get players trained for the quarterfinal round,” Vermes told reporters in a conference call from Mexico City on Wednesday night, after Cruz Azul went on a three-goal tear in the second half and cruised to a 5-1 second-leg victory and a 5-2 aggregate win in their quarterfinal series. “It is not an easy thing for any team in MLS.”
Vermes was quick to add, though, that Cruz Azul were a formidable enough opponent without any help from the schedule or the high elevation of their home city.
“That team deserves what they got today,” he said. “We weren't good enough at the start of the game, and we weren't good enough in the second half. You can go back and think about all kinds of things, but in the end, they were better than us tonight.”
Despite goals in the second and 23rd minutes from Cruz Azul's Mariano Pavone, Benny Feilhaber's 43rd-minute strike had Sporting up in the series on the away-goals tiebreaker. But Pavone completed his hat trick in the 55th, and La Máquina added insurance goals from Mauro Formica in the 66th and Christian Giménez in the 70th.
“The second half, they were the better team,” Vermes said. “They were the better team. They opened us up.”
And throughout the match, the road to Sporting's goal ran through the flanks on either side – even on Pavone's second tally, a putback from close range after Marco Fabián took a long ball on the left wing and unleashed a blast that Eric Kronberg saved but couldn't control.
“We gave up four goals from the outside wing channels,” Vermes said. “That was the difference in the game.”
Sporting were without their top two fullbacks on Wednesday night, with right back Chance Myers still sidelined by a preseason groin strain and Seth Sinovic serving a one-match suspension for caution accumulation.
“They're experienced,” Vermes said. “No doubt they were missed for sure.”
Steve Brisendine covers Sporting KC for MLSsoccer.com.