Warshaw: Sporting KC learn thin line between bold and naive in CCL

Sporting Kansas City travelled to Monterrey for the first leg of the Concacaf Champions League semifinal on Thursday. Monterrey won 5-0. The Mexican giants scored in the 7th, 14th, 55th, 70th, and 76th minutes.

What’s the takeaway?

We will remember SKC for trying to be the aggressor, for being too open; for Monterrey getting chance after chance on the break; for Sporting looking tired after 15 minutes. We will use those memories to determine what comes next.

But there’s a question I can’t shake: How does a team show confidence without revealing naivety?

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Those are the two things at or near the crux of the MLS vs. Liga MX rivalry, right? Yes, Liga MX teams spend more money, but they also now have the extra je ne sais pas. The result never looks in doubt to them; they know how to handle business. They look like a group of men about to play chess against checkers players -- they don't even know what they're getting into.

Sporting brought the requisite confidence, yet that confidence killed them.  

Peter Vermes got his team to take the game to Monterrey. They started the opening leg with possibly more swagger than we’ve ever seen from an MLS team in such a big away game. SKC opened the game like they might run Monterrey off the field. They dominated the ball and created good looks around the box. SKC went into foreign territory and tried to pass and press and space the field as if they were playing the San Jose Earthquakes.

Unfortunately, they quickly learned that Monterrey aren’t the Earthquakes at the moment. The home team found countries worth of space in the wide channels after Sporting conceded possession. Monterrey scored early, they scored late. The Mexican giants probably could have added a few more, as well. SKC’s confidence got punished like a mouse chasing the piece of cheese under the fridge.

What’s the right answer moving forward for MLS teams, then? What’s the lesson to embrace? The result is a very real truth. But what about the process en route?

It has something to do with naivety, I think, but I’m not sure what. The easy takeaway is to ask the question: “Why did SKC attack so belligerently?!” Perhaps SKC should have changed their style for Thursday’s game. In their attempt to dominate the game, SKC seemed to forget how lethal Monterrey would be on the break. But SKC are who they are. You can’t mention Thursday’s naivety without considering the confidence, too, and the lack of confidence of so many MLS teams in Mexico before them. It’s impossible to decouple approach from mindset. The only difference between emboldened and naive? The result.

I realize Sporting KC got smashed. But I also don’t mind saying that I liked the way they approached the game and, with a few minor tweaks, I hope MLS teams adopt something similar in the future.

It’s one thing for an MLS team to hoist the CCL trophy. It’s an entirely different cause for MLS teams to be able to go toe-to-toe with Liga MX clubs consistently. The second one, it seems to me, is the actual cause MLS should be chasing. That will only come when teams walk onto the field with same swagger that SKC showed on Thursday. Naivety can be altered, but it only comes upon the premise of confidence. The specifics of the blueprint will probably get dropped in the fire. The pen, though, should stay.  

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