Warshaw: Why Sporting Kansas City are the last MLS team standing in CCL

 
Sporting Kansas City Highlights vs. CAI 2

Highlights: Check out the best moments of Sporting Kansas City 3-0 victory over CAI Panamá #SCCL2019 #SKCvCAI

Posted by Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League on Thursday, March 14, 2019

It was not a fun game to watch.

Sporting Kansas City started getting chances early, and they started missing chances early. Some games like that have a feeling of inevitability, a matter of when, not if. This one did not. Sporting looked desperate early. The type of desperate that gets dubbed “urgent” on good days and “rushed” on bad ones.

Sporting were playing well; they just didn’t look completely likely to score. They got chance after chance, and Independiente seemed to make block after block in front of goal. Just another half second, guys. Take the extra breath. Shot after shot, block after block. Another anguished face in a light blue jersey. It felt at one point like CAI had seven players in the six-yard box at all times.

But then the breakthrough came in the 74th minute. Krisztian Nemeth volleyed home a ball back across the box on a corner kick. Sporting kept chipping away and the goal came. Then another. Then another. A final of 3-0 in the end.

This game, this series, and this win should become engrained in our memories.

We can talk all we want about the gap between MLS and Liga MX. Results set storylines, but sometimes the storylines are more complicated than the results.

Atlanta were not systematically crushed by Monterrey; Atlanta managed the series the wrong way. Had they stuck out the 1-0 loss and returned to Atlanta only needing a goal… well, who knows. The New York Red Bulls were not systematically crushed by Santos Laguna; they just lost the key moments. Sometimes there are larger factors — and yes, more investment from MLS sides to match Liga MX salaries would help — but sometimes there’s managing the moment.

In the first leg of their quarterfinal series, Sporting went down to a crappy field in La Chorrera and escaped with a narrow 2-1 loss. It was an honest scoreline; Independiente playing at home are a better team than Sporting Kansas City playing in Panama. Similarly, Sporting are the better team when the game is played at Children’s Mercy Park.

Survive where you need to, and go for the punches when you can.

Sporting entered the home leg with a clear game plan: Isolate the wingers running toward the corner of the 18-yard-box. In doing so, they could generate 1-v-1 moments outside of Independiente’s defensive block, while also keeping at least four behind the ball and mitigate the risk of CAI’s counters. It was the perfect risk-assessment for the night — Sporting didn’t need an avalanche, they only needed one.

It wasn’t fun to watch. It wasn’t art. It was a pragmatic calculation. The pragmatic calculation we rarely see from MLS sides in CCL.

It was expected for Sporting Kansas City to beat a team from Panama. They don’t necessarily deserve a pat on the back for that. But I hope we’ll remember how they beat them, how they managed the two-leg series, how they ruthlessly calculated their way to the next round.

MLS is still working on overcoming the gap with Liga MX, but I wonder how much it could get filled by a bit more of that ruthlessness.


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