Of the five Major League Soccer teams that kicked off their 2019 Concacaf Champions League campaign this week, Sporting Kansas City looked the most impressive of the bunch.
Peter Vermes’ side pulled off a 3-0 victory at Children’s Mercy Park over Liga MX side Toluca to open up a significant advantage heading into Thursday’s second leg south of the border.
Sporting KC didn’t just luck itself into a few goals, like some teams in the CCL have done in the past, it took the game to Toluca, which is rare to see from an MLS side doing battle with a Mexican club.
Sporting KC controlled 63.8 percent of the possession, completed 84 percent of its passes, attempted over 200 more passes than Toluca and outshot its Mexican foe 13-9.
“I think there’s no doubt that the ability for us to play through as good a team as Toluca is pretty impressive,” Vermes said. “I think, at the end of the day, you have to commend our guys. We have quality guys on our team. They worked very, very hard.”
On top of all that, Sporting KC answered whatever doubts there were about its collection of forwards, as Krisztian Nemeth and Gerso Fernandes shined in the season opener.
Gerso was particularly impressive, as he held up the ball in the penalty area to set up Nemeth’s opener and scored the club’s second goal in the 52nd minute.
“That’s what I do as a winger,” Gerso said. “Whenever I have a chance to go one-on-one, I go with everything. I think I’m good at it. So any time I have a chance, I will try to do it and after that, I will try to find a teammate to assist.”
With Gerso, Nemeth and Johnny Russell running at opposing defenses at full strength, Sporting KC has the potential to find the back of the net on multiple occasions this season.
“I thought from the attacking perspective we had a really good understanding of what we wanted to take advantage of,” Vermes said. “I thought that Gerso’s movement off the ball was tremendous. I thought that Nemeth was excellent to play through. He’s always very good in very tight spaces in and around the box.”
Even with Daniel Salloi and Erik Hurtado coming off the bench, Sporting KC has plenty of attacking depth, even though it doesn’t have a marquee No. 9 on its roster.
The confidence up top will be key for the club as it embarks on the second leg, a part of the competition MLS teams have had trouble with on the road in the past, especially in Mexico.
The task is far from completed, but Sporting KC holds a favorable advantage and didn’t give up an away goal, which is a start to winning the on-field battle.
Sporting KC needs to keep the aggressive edge it had in the first leg while also benefiting from the experience of Matt Besler, Graham Zusi and Roger Espinoza, all of whom have plenty of experience traveling in Concacaf play.
Vermes is also one of the best managers to succeed out of this position, as he won’t let Sporting KC get too high while preparing for the second leg, which the club will do in New Mexico to prepare for the altitude.
“Playing at 8800 feet is a difficult proposition for any team,” Vermes said. “We’re going to have to be ready. It’s one thing if you’re in form and you’ve played in a lot of games and you have soccer fitness under you. It can be a little bit easier but the fact that this is our first competitive game, that’s what makes this so difficult. We’re going to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to train in altitude for about five to six days. That’s going to help a little bit with us getting acclimated.”
The players are also aware that nothing is settled yet, but with a similar performance to Thursday’s game, Sporting KC will be on to the quarterfinals.
“We have to be smart,” Nemeth said. “It’s not over. We have to be prepared. We know that they’re dangerous at home. We’re going there to fight for the result and we hope to move onto the next round.”