Sporting Kansas City tasted the thrill of victory over a Liga MX side not so long ago, having memorably played Toluca off their own park in Concacaf Champions League two years ago. And Club Leon know how it feels to be outpaced by MLS opposition, thanks to LAFC’s white-knuckle comeback on them in the 2020 edition of CCL and Toronto FC’s first-round upset back in April.
There would be no such underdog magic when the two clubs met in Leagues Cup at Children’s Mercy Park on Tuesday night, however.
As ambitious as Sporting may be – and notably, they currently sit second in the MLS Supporters’ Shield race – their approach to this latest installment of the ever-growing MLS vs. Liga MX rivalry ran headlong into what manager Peter Vermes framed as hard, unyielding realities of personnel and fitness. So he felt he had no choice but to trot out a wet-behind-the-ears lineup featuring seven homegrowns, six of them 21 or younger, that was duly thumped 6-1 by a ruthlessly fluid Leon outfit.
“We'd like to win everything that we play in. But unfortunately when you're playing seven games in 22 days; we played four games in the last 11 days – altitude, travel, away from home – the reality is that I'm not going to risk guys that have high [physical] loads,” said Vermes postgame. “I'm not going to risk them. I'm just not going to. And so obviously, it was a very young team in a lot of respects. And that is what it is.
“That's the decision I had to make,” he added. “And anybody wants to make a criticism to the team, they can make it at me, I'll take the blame on it. I’m the coach, no problem. Bring it on, I'll take it.”
As he made his case, Vermes harked back to that 2019 campaign, which started so brightly with an impressive run to the Concacaf Champions League semifinals only to crater down the stretch as the physiological weight of that early start led to injuries and fatigue – and the end of an eight-year streak of Audi MLS Cup Playoffs qualification.
“I'm not here to make excuses. The other team played well, congratulations to them, and good luck to them to move on. But I can't risk players on my team. We've been through this before in 2019 – traveling across time zones, incredible weather,” he said. “It's actually a really simple answer. Does anybody want to lose like we did today? No, we don't want to. But I'm not going to put the team in jeopardy.”
Beyond their injury list, schedule and July international absences, Kansas City just bid farewell to Gianluca Busio via his big-ticket transfer to Venezia and are still waiting on new signing Jose Mauri’s paperwork to clear. That led to a first-team debut for the teenage Ozzie Cisneros, just a second career start for Grayson Barber and third-ever starts for Wilson Harris and Kaveh Rad.
It was a case of throwing the kids in at the deep end and seeing how they fared, for better or worse.
“Sometimes you got to do what you got to do, and people have got to take the opportunity and they have to go and run with it, and they have to do their best with it,” said Vermes. “It's an experience. And for some of them, it's not a good experience, right? They got it handed to them, and they're going to have to bounce back from it.”
In a different context, perhaps Sporting’s Leagues Cup might not have been so short-lived.
"If I had a completely healthy team at this time, OK, maybe it's a different story," he said.
An academy-driven club, SKC undoubtedly want more of this sort of exposure for their rising prospects, at multiple age levels.
“All of these kids, like our [Under-]15s, our 17s, our 19s, they need to be playing international competitions against Mexican teams,” Vermes noted. “A lot of these kids that are in our team should have already played against Leon’s 15s or 17s four or five times before they even play this game, so that they know what they're playing against. But we’re just not there yet. We're working towards it. So when that happens, that'll be great. But I still think the experience for our guys was good, because they were shown what it's like playing against a team of that caliber.”