KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Sporting Kansas City and Cruz Azul both play on Saturday before meeting next Wednesday at Sporting Park in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals. The difference between the two is that Sporting will be opening their new MLS season that day at Seattle, while Cruz Azul take an eight-match winning streak into their meeting with Tigres UANL.
Basically, Cruz Azul are in form while Sporting have not yet even officially kicked a ball.
“They're in midseason. That's the big thing,” manager Peter Vermes told reporters during Sporting's annual media day on Tuesday. “There's a high-flying river going by, and we're trying to jump in and try to hold ourselves in there.”
But if any of the three MLS teams still left in CCL contention can claim to be in in-season form, if not midseason, it might well be the defending MLS Cup champions.
“I've never been in another preseason, so I don't know what other teams do or how other teams feel,” center back and new captain Matt Besler said. “The only thing I have to compare is us, and we're the farthest along that we've ever been in my five years.”
There are concrete reasons for Besler's confidence.
Sporting are coming off a shorter break, thanks to their run to the MLS Cup final in early December. They also return every key player from the title drive except retired goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen. And Vermes threw them head first into preseason competition, making sure they played every Wednesday and Saturday during the run-up to the opener.
- Get more Sporting Kansas City news at SportingKC.com
“Because we were putting so much emphasis on Champions League, all we were really doing in the preseason was getting match fit,” midfielder Graham Zusi said. “The chemistry's there. It's virtually the same group as we had, so that's something we don't have to worry about. We worry about getting better, but we don't have to reinvent anything, reinvent that chemistry that we already have.”
And while it's only one match, midfielder Benny Feilhaber said, Saturday's opener will give Sporting a crucial shot of meaningful competition before the quarterfinal opener.
“It always takes at least one game, maybe more, to start playing your best soccer,” Feilhaber said. “So we've got the challenge. We've got to do it by the second game. We're going to have to be playing top, top soccer to be able to knock off Cruz Azul.
“Obviously, we have Seattle in front of us at first and they're at the same point as we are, so maybe we can get a result without playing our best soccer. But it's going to be a tough one against Cruz Azul. We're going to have to be mentally prepared for that one to knock them off.”
Steve Brisendine covers Sporting KC for MLSsoccer.com.