Sporting Kansas City players celebrate a goal on Saturday night vs. the Houston Dynamo

CONCACAF Champions League: In race against time, Sporting KC eyeing full fitness for quarters

Most MLS clubs don't have to start thinking about knockout matches until they enter domestic cup play – either the US Open Cup or the Canadian Championship – in late spring.

But for the first time since 2005, back when they were still known as the Wizards, Sporting Kansas City have to head into the season in playoff mode – and the defending MLS Cup champions are doing a good job of getting there, manager Peter Vermes said.

“They understand what's ahead of us,” Vermes told by phone on Tuesday from Orlando, Fla., where Sporting open the preseason Walt Disney World Pro Soccer Classic on Wednesday against the New York Red Bulls. “It's not going to be the easiest of situations for us to get up and ready and running in form, but I think they understand what's ahead of us and have a very good mentality around the training and knowing that we need to prepare a little differently than we have in the past.”

Ahead is a CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal meeting with Mexican side Cruz Azul, with the first leg set for March 12 at Sporting Park and the second a week later in the high altitude of Mexico City.

It's the first regional knockout action for Sporting since the quarterfinals of the 2005 CONCACAF Champions' Cup, when they lost 2-1 on aggregate – all three goals coming in the extra-time home leg in Kansas City – to Costa Rica's Deportivo Saprissa, the eventual champion.

With the Cruz Azul dates in mind, Vermes said, Sporting's main emphasis in the Disney Classic will be evaluating players' fitness not only to go 90 minutes, but to also do it with playoff-level intensity.

If they win? So much the better, but that's not the main focus.

“Obviously, any game we go to, we want to do well and we want to win and all those things,” Vermes said. “Those things are obviously part of the equation. They're never not going to be part of the equation. But right now we want to build the guys up so that they can sustain a high intensity for those opening games, especially the quarterfinals.”

Sporting play every other year at altitude, when they visit Colorado, but Mexico City sits almost 2,900 feet higher – and that's not the only concern, Vermes said.

“The difference is that we're playing a great team in Cruz Azul,” he said. “It's a team right now that is firing on all cylinders. They're in the middle of their season, and they're in form. Those are the difficulties we're going to have to cope with, and that's why this preseason takes on a much different theme.

"We're trying to accelerate a group that doesn't usually have to get to this point this early in the season. But the mentality around the players is very good right now.”

Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for

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