By TATE STEINLAGE
Sporting Kansas City had no answer for Mariano Pavone and the rest of Cruz Azul in Wednesday’s decisive second leg of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals.
Pavone tallied a hat-trick in under an hour to boost the Mexican side into the semifinals with a 5-1 (5-2 aggregate) victory, eliminating the last remaining Major League Soccer squad from the tournament.
“They were the better team,” Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes said in a post-match interview. “We weren’t good enough. The start of the game we weren’t good, and the second half (we weren’t good). You can go back and pick out all kind of things, but in the end they were better than us tonight.”
Cruz Azul needed just two minutes to eliminate the 1-0 deficit earned from last Wednesday’s loss at Sporting Park. Pavone slipped behind defender Ike Opara and the Sporting KC defense, and blasted home a world-class shot into the upper 90.
Twenty-two minutes later, Pavone found the back of the net again to put Cruz Azul in the driver’s seat. It was the result of a wonderful sequence by Cruz Azul that sent a shot at Sporting KC goalkeeper Eric Kronberg. The veteran did his best to save the initial attempt at the near post, but Pavone was left open for the easy score.
Sporting KC did show a glimmer of hope right before the halftime break, though. A strike by midfielder Benny Feilhaber put his squad ahead in away goals in the 44th minute. The score was an individual effort by Feilhaber, who took a Sporting KC short corner and struck a ball just past the fingertips of Cruz Azul goalkeeper Jesus Corona.
“We gave up those two goals there early, which we didn’t want to do. Benny (Feilhaber) did a great job to get us back in the game and to get us to a place where the away goal counts big for us,” Vermes said. “But in the second half, they definitely were the better team. We gave up four goals on the outside. That was the difference in the game.”
Cruz Azul wasted little time asserting themselves in the second half as the wheels of Sporting KC’s defense came off. Pavone capped off his spectacular night in the 55th minute with a goal from less than 10 yards out after working past the Sporting KC back four.
“In those situations, with who you’re playing against, you have to be tough,you have to be hard. You can’t give those guys any space,” Vermes said. “And that guy (Pavone), he is an aggressive, and very hungry, player. You can’t give him anything.”
The dagger came 11 minutes later. Sporting KC defender Mechack Jerome was beaten on the outside flank, left chasing his man into the box. Kronberg came out indecisively to assist, but eventually the ball landed at the feet of Mauro Formica who sent in another rebound.
Cruz Azul added insurance in the 70th minute when Christian Gimenez found himself open inside the box, shooting at the right post, getting the lucky rebound into the back of the net.
Gimenez’s goal capped out a disappointing night for Sporting KC, who had high expectations coming into the quarterfinals. Despite the early exit, Vermes told SBI that he is pleased with the team’s play throughout the tournament.
“I thought we did well going through group stage, and I thought we did a good job at home against a team that is the best team in Mexico,” Vermes said. “Unfortunately, we learned a good lesson here tonight. The big thing is that, as a team, can we grow and get better from those types of games?”
Sporting KC is the final MLS team to be eliminated from the CONCACAF Champions League after LA Galaxy and San Jose Earthquakes defeats. Kansas City returns to action Saturday at home against the Earthquakes at 8:30 p.m. ET.