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Sporting KC takes underdog status to Monterrey, Mexico for CCL semifinals

Mar 14, 2019; Kansas City, KS, USA; Sporting Kansas City midfielder Roger Espinoza (17) celebrates after scoring a goal during the second half against Independiente at Children's Mercy Park. (Peter G. Aiken/USA TODAY Sports)

To make Concacaf Champions League history, Sporting Kansas City will have to go through some tournament giants.

SKC will clash with Monterrey in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals Thursday. With the series, comes a chance for a Major League Soccer team to deepen the league’s footprint in the tournament it has long struggled in.

Monterrey comes with a history, having won three straight CCL trophies from 2011-13. Members of its league – Liga MX, the top tier in Mexico – have dominated the tournament. A team outside of Liga MX hasn’t won the CCL since 2005, when Costa Rican side Saprissa took home the title.

Meanwhile, an MLS team has never won the CCL tournament.

“They have dominated this tournament, so I think they see their league as being superior to ours,” SKC manager Peter Vermes said of Liga MX. “I don’t necessarily know if I can argue against that at the moment because we haven’t won the tournament, and at some point you have to win the tournament to start getting compared there. What I would say is that we’re a lot closer than we were before.”

As the last MLS club standing, SKC knows it has a tall task in front of it – starting in a hostile environment. The first leg of the tournament semifinals in Monterrey will likely be the most hostile crowd Kansas City has faced this year.

But Vermes is choosing to see that crowd as a positive, not a pitfall.

“When you go to certain places and the atmosphere isn’t so good, I think sometimes you’ve got to have internal motivation, and it doesn’t always necessarily come out in those environments,” he said. “Whereas this (Monterrey), you’re on your toes, you’re on the edge. I always (make) the analogy … If the players go on vacation to the Grand Canyon, they sit back and they view the wonderment of the view, right? If they went with me to the Grand Canyon, the only thing they would be thinking about is how they’re not going to fall off the cliff, because I would take them so close to the edge. That’s my job. So, I think the great thing being in an environment like that, there’s not a lot of extra motivation they need. It’s already going to be there from the environment, which is great.”

Part of that motivation also stems from the chance to be the only MLS team to advance to the trophy stand in this tournament.

And – for a team that doesn’t always hold this status in its own league – an opportunity to play the underdog card.

There are some structural details of Liga MX that give a natural leg-up to its teams within a tournament like the CCL. Teams like Monterrey play without salary cap restrictions. So the ability to roster-stack often naturally exceeds that of an MLS squad. 

“If you kind of took their roster and compared it to an MLS roster and put them under the salary cap we have, they could have a starting lineup of 10 DPs,” Vermes said, referencing the highest-paid, so-called “designated players” in MLS.

“With that being said, that’s why sports are great,” he continued. “You have so many different examples in all sports where the big team gets beat by the little team. That’s what everyone loves about sports. You have to play the game.”

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