Sporting Kansas City’s choice to hold back some regulars from Saturday’s team that opened the Major League Soccer season paid off on Wednesday, with fullback Kevin Ellis’s early goal proving enough to hand the team a 1-0 CONCACAF Champions League win over visiting Cruz Azul. The victory gave the defending MLS champions a lead ahead of next week’s second leg in Mexico City, with La Machina suffering their first loss of tournament.
Ellis’s winner came in the 17th minute after play build down the right found the team’s nominal right back in the left of the penalty area. With his second touch, the 22-year-old Home Grown defender beat José de Jésus Corona inside the left post, the shot’s power pushing the ball past a goalkeeper who appeared to have his vision slightly blocked by one of his defenders.
The goal was part of a first half that saw Kansas City’s pressure cause troubles for Mexico’s leaders. Cruz Azul, unlike Toluca last night at San Jose, elected to start a full-strength squad in Kansas, yet a team featuring Marco Fabián, Joao Rojas, Mariano Pavone, Cristian Giménez and Mauro Fórmica couldn’t muster a meaningful threaten Eric Kronberg’s goal. With Claudio Bieler nearly putting the hosts up two in the middle of the period, Sporting took a deserved one-goal lead into half-time.
In the second period, however, Pavone nearly broke through early, with a ball played past a high line allowing the Argentine attacker to one-on-one with Kronberg. After rounding the keeper just inside the penalty area, Pavone saw a shot into a presumably open net blocked by Ike Opara, who had recovered to defend Kronberg’s abandoned goal.
Moments later, Cruz Azul had another potential equalizer saved off the line after the redirection of a corner kick forced Seth Sinovic to come up with the back line’s second save in as many minutes. The play was controversial, however, for a possible handball on Benny Feilhaber, with replays unable to conclusively show whether the U.S. international, standing near the goal line, had intentionally kept the ball out of goal.
Cruz Azul would continue to be the more controlling side throughout the rest of the game, though a late ball over the top of the Mexicans’ defense nearly gave Claudio Bieler a chance to double Sporting’s lead. A good read from Corona to come out of his area to clear the ball prevented the Kansas City striker from getting a shot on goal, keeping the home side’s lead at one.
Come full-time, Sporting had secured their first CONCACAF Champions League victory at Sporting Park, a result that will emboldened them ahead of next week’s trip to Estadio Azul. With one of the best defenses in Major League Soccer, Peter Vermes has reason to believe his side can keep a clean sheet against the Cementeros..
But down only one, Cruz Azul should still be considered most likely to go through. Having thrown their best at MLS’s champions tonight, however, Luis Fernando Tena’s team also learned Liga MX success may not necessarily translate to CONCACAF Champions League results.
Though Kansas City did little more than hold serve, it’s now up to Cruz Azul to do the same next week in Mexico.