For nearly 75 minutes Thursday, it looked like Major League Soccer’s last remaining hope to advance in the Concacaf Champions League was done. Sporting KC was locked in a 0-0 draw with Club Atletico Independiente until that point. But a three-goal flurry in 12 minutes from the home team shot SKC into the tournament semifinals.
Here are three things we learned from Thursday’s match:
This offense could surpass last year’s
SKC set a club record last year in goals scored in a single season. But it’s not a crazy thought to wonder if it’ll happen again this year. Yes, the three-goal surge late in the second half was an obvious clue that Kansas City has an explosive offense. But in reality, the team probably could have scored even more. Manager Peter Vermes went all in on that after the match, saying his players could have bagged five more.
And he’s not wrong. The ways in which SKC missed weren’t exactly troubling from a creation standpoint – just an illustration of a goalkeeper having an incredible game and the overall weirdness of Concacaf play. Graham Zusi launched a perfect curling free kick that would have gone in on almost any other night. But CAI’s Jose Guerra fingertipped it over the bar with no inches to spare. Felipe Gutierrez suffered a similar fate in the 66th minute, then again in the 71st. Gutierrez’s rebound shot from that second save hit the post. Gerso Fernandes shot a ball into the post, too.
There was no lack of chances, in other words (27 total shots, actually). This team, even early on, is blending creativity and technicality with a little bit of ruthlessness, which we saw towards the end.
1-0 was never going to be enough
Down in aggregate by only one goal, SKC’s margin of victory to advance Thursday only ever had to be one (Kansas City held the away goals tiebreaker). But once SKC finally did grab that one-goal lead, in the 74th minute, there was no sitting back and coasting to the 90th. The players maintained the same pressure they had unleashed from the beginning – and it obviously paid off.
Once the first score came, the proverbial floodgates seemed to open. SKC had no problem piling on, and quickly.
“I think the second and third goals were important because you never know, they have a lucky goal at the end or something,” said Krisztian Nemeth, who scored SKC’s first and third goals. “That’s why we show some character today. We keep playing our way and we don’t just sit back and keep the 1-nil, and be happy with that.”
Peter Vermes and Co. were not here for CAI’s style
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand the logic behind CAI’s style Thursday: Needing only a tie to advance to the CCL semifinals, CAI bunkered early. And on top of that, the Panamanian side took its time as much as possible. Guerra was eventually carded in the second half for time-wasting, although fans at Children’s Mercy Park were calling for the penalty earlier. Players went down to the field time and time again, milking as much injury time as possible.
The theme from SKC players and Vermes after the match was one of pride in their own style, and a thinly-veiled annoyance at CAI’s moseying.
Johnny Russell called the tactic a “rubbish part of the game.”
“We got frustrated in that part,” Roger Espinoza said. “The U.S., when they play, they don’t waste time – they just want to play. And that’s the American culture, and the American teams. It doesn’t happen much in the MLS, with the exception of a few teams.”
And Vermes didn’t mince words either:
“From the opening whistle it was obvious,” he said. “They were already walking. They were already tired is the way they were playing it off. The ball would go out of bounds and they would walk 15 to 20 yards to go pick up a ball. It bothers me so much about the game because I don’t think the game should be played that way. But we’re going to face that, and we have to be able to be mature enough to deal with it and we did a great job in managing that. What was great was how the tables turned and they wanted the game to be hurried up and our guys were very intelligent in the way that they managed the game at that moment. It’s nice to be able to turn the tables on someone who wants to play that way. We don’t want to play that way, ever. It was nice to be able to just manage the game. To be up one, two, or three to zero.”
SKC was certainly pleased to beat not CAI and move on to the CCL semis. But they also nabbed the philosophical victory, too.