Sporting KC vs. Cruz Azul | CONCACAF Champions League Match Preview

Sporting Kansas City vs. Cruz Azul
Sporting Park, Kansas City, Kan.
CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals, first leg
March 12, 2014; 8 pm ET/7 pm CT (FOX Sports 2)

Sporting KC’s series vs. Cruz Azul could well be the measuring point for just how close the rivalry between MLS and the Liga MX is — Sporting are the defending MLS champions, while Cruz Azul have been the best team in their own league through the first 10 games of 2014.

The two teams have, however, gotten to this position playing very different styles. Costa Rica’s Alajuelense (also a quarterfinalist) were the only other team to concede just one goal in the CCL group stage, while Sporting also boasts the best backline in MLS, having conceded only 30 goals in 34 regular-season games in 2014.

Cruz Azul, on the other hand, are the top scoring team in the Liga MX after 10 games with 18 goals to their name, driven Mexican international Marco Fabián and the deadly Argentine duo of Mauro Formica and Mariano Pavone. It’s a significant improvement from the pedestrian 21 goal total (over 17 games) in the 2013 Apertura, though they were brought back to Earth with their first loss of the season, 3-0 at Tigres UANL, this past Sunday and Sporting will hope to seize on any doubts that may have crept into their opponents’ minds.

For a more detailed look at what to expect from Sporting KC this season, check out the Armchair Analyst's 2014 season preview.

How they qualified:

  • Sporting KC: Group 2 winner, No. 7 seed (2-0-2; 8 points, 5 GF/1 GA)
  • Cruz Azul: Group 3 winner, No. 2 seed (4-0-0; 12 points, 10 GF/2GA)

The Opponent – What you need to know about Cruz Azul

Coach: Luis Fernando Tena (Mexico)

Current Position: 1st in Liga MX (8-1-1; 25 pts., 18 GF/6 GA)

Star Player: Marco Fabián

Fabian is one of the bright young stars of Mexican soccer, even after a less than happy departure from Chivas Guadalajara — where he made his name as a player — in December 2013 on a one-year loan to Cruz Azul with an option to buy.

Seeking to make his first World Cup squad after capturing Olympic gold in London a year-and-a-half ago, Fabián has started off on the right foot with his new team with four goals and an assist to his name in nine appearances for La Máquina.

An attacking midfielder who can play both out wide and centrally, Fabián is a well-rounded player who can create dangerous looks for himself and his teammates both with his strong technical ability and with his movement on and off the ball. He is a capable goalscorer, to boot, and will need to be watched closely on the defensive side — though not at the expense of the likes of Pavone, Formica and Christian "Chaco" Giménez.

You May Recognize: Gerardo Torrado

Torrado shouldn’t need any introduction for fans who have followed the US national team and CONCACAF soccer in the recent past — he’s collected 146 caps for the Mexican national team since debuting in 1999 and has been a fixture for Cruz Azul since 2005, where he is now the captain.

Consistently mentioned as one of the best defensive midfielders in the Liga MX and CONCACAF in the past decade, Torrado, 34, has naturally had to deal with the stresses of time but is otherwise strong in the tackle and can distribute the ball as well as ever, meaning his presence on the field should not be taken lightly by Sporting KC.

Also, it’s unlikely we’ll see any of them Wednesday, but former San Jose Earthquakes midfielder Rafael Baca, on-loan Galaxy forward Jose Villarreal and ex-Philadelphia midfielder Michael Farfan are all on the Cruz Azul roster and will be familiar faces to any recent MLS fans who may see them step on the field.

Possible XIs:

  • Sporting KC (4-3-3): Kronberg; Myers, Opara, Besler, Sinovic; Rosell, Nagamura, Feilhaber; Zusi, Bieler, Sapong
  • Cruz Azul (4-2-3-1): Corona; Chávez, Dominguez, Pinto, Castro; Torrado, Castro; Fabián, Formica, Rojas; Pavone

Why Sporting will win: Do Sporting have a leg up as defending MLS champs in this series? The low amount of turnover on the roster and in the coaching staff certainly helps alleviate some of the effects of starting their season a full two months after Cruz Azul.

Sporting's cohesiveness and discipline in defense are not in question even with Aurelien Collin suspended for caution accumulation. However, for all the plaudits the team has (rightfully) earned over the past few years, goalscoring remains a problem, and it's hard to see them prospering in a shootout against the Mexican side. Still, if there's any team that's capable of dealing with the pressure of knockout competition and the problems altitude in Mexico City will present, it's Sporting, and that's a good a reason as any to hold out hope.

Why Cruz Azul will win: There's no way around it, La Máquina should be favorites here given the quality of their team throughout the roster. However, finding the net at Sporting Park will be a tough ask for them, and if they are shut out there, it's easy to see some doubt seeping into their minds. 

It’s worth noting at this point that Cruz Azul have a well-earned reputation for being notoriously poor in playoff situations – they have not won a Mexican league title or continental title since 1997 despite being one of the consistently strongest teams in both competitions. A complete, concentrated 180 minutes in a high-pressure environment will be critical for their chances, and they have rarely proved they can do it.

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