KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Eric Kronberg has four clean sheets in five CONCACAF Champions League matches – a club record for international competition. One more, and Sporting Kansas City will be guaranteed a spot in the CCL semifinals.
“We've just got to do it again next week,” Kronberg told reporters after Sporting opened the two-leg quarterfinal series with a 1-0 home victory over Mexico's Cruz Azul. “We're all looking forward to the opportunity, and I think we can pull it off.”
In his latest shutout, Sporting Kansas City's new No. 1 goalkeeper wasn't the only one making the saves.
In one bang-bang sequence early in the second half Wednesday night, Kronberg's back line came up big twice to preserve the defending MLS Cup champion’s edge in the aggregate scoring – and deny Cruz Azul a needed away goal going into next week's return leg in Mexico City.
“They definitely helped me out tonight,” Kronberg said.
Center back Ike Opara had the first clutch clearance in the 54th minute, deflecting Mariano Pavone's low, near-post shot out for a corner after Pavone drew Kronberg out of goal.
“Good for Ike,” Kronberg said. “He came back and tracked, and I did what I could to slow [Pavone] down, too. So it was a team effort, I think.”
Then, on the ensuing corner kick, Marco Fabián's header hit Benny Feilhaber in the upper arm – with no handball called by referee Elmer Bonilla – and would have looped into the goal had left back Seth Sinovic not headed it away.
“Mine had more to do with Benny, I think,” Sinovic said. “I just got lucky that Benny got to it. I think I lost my mark on that one, so it was kind of my fault in the first place. But I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time there.”
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Opara also caught a break on defense in the first half when Joao Rojas took a long ball alone behind the back line but muffed his first touch. That allowed Opara to catch up and knock the ball out of danger.
“Maybe he shocked himself being onside,” Opara said. “It was one of those things where a couple of bounces went our way. As hard as we work, sometimes you do need a little bit of luck. Everything rolled our way today, but first and foremost we put the effort in. That's what created a lot of things for us.”
Manager Peter Vermes, the MLS Defender of the Year when the then-Wizards won MLS Cup in 2000, said his club's big defensive plays on Wednesday underscored the importance of staying sharp.
“We talked about the fact that it will take every roll of the ball for us to be concentrated and focused for 90-plus minutes,” Vermes said. “We knew they were very crafty and they could find opportunities off mistakes and capitalize very quickly when you are not paying attention. I thought our concentration was excellent.
“Take the situation with Ike. For his recovery to get to the goal line and not give up on the play when he could have, it showed tremendous heart and it just shows the character of the group.”
Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com.