The defending Major League Soccer champions didn’t give fans much to talk about. After Wednesday’s performance in Mexico City, most MLS supporters will prefer to forget than discuss. Though Benny Feilhaber’s late first half goal gave Sporting Kansas City an away goals edge going into halftime at Estadio Azul, the second leg of Sporting’s CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal was all Cruz Azul. With three goals from Mariano Pavone and insurance from Mauro Formica and Cristian Giménez, La Machina are through to the tournament’s semifinals, their 5-1 demolition of the MLS Cup holders belittling any notion Sporting could preserve the 1-0 lead that earned in Kansas.
Given what we’ve seen over the last four years from a physical, often oppressive Kansas City quad, the result was a complete shock, one that reminded viewers of a era they thought dead. It wasn’t so long ago that MLS teams would go to Mexico can be embarrassed by teams that looked far superior to their MLS counterparts, yet in recent years, the league had made strides. But between the Galaxy’s performance in Tijuana and Sporting’s performance in the capital, MLS turned back the clock. The difference in class between Xolos as Cruz Azul was shocking to those used to seeing the Galaxy and Kansas City near the top of MLS’s standings.
Wednesday’s shock started in the second minute, when Joao Rojas set up Pavone for the host’s opening goal. Twenty-one minutes later, Liga MX’s leaders had completely reversed its leg one deficit, with the Argentine’s second goal of the night giving them a 2-1 aggregate lead. Within 23 minutes, all the hopes Sporting had of carrying their MLS success into Champions League seemed to have evaporated.
Then came their moment of hope. Dribbling around Marco Fabian at the edge of the penalty box, Feilhaber drilled a shot from 20 yards out at goalkeeper José de Jésus Corona’s lower right hand corner. Unable to get down for the ball quick enough, Corona could not prevent Sporting from taking an advantage into half-time, the 2-2 aggregate score giving the visitors the away goals tiebreaker.
Whatever hope came with that advantage evaporated within 10 minutes. That’s when Pavone, in the 55th minute, completed his hat trick. Then came Fórmica’s goal (66′). Then Gímenez’s (70′). As bad as the Galaxy were in the first half against Tijuana, Sporting may have been worse, and for longer, against Cruz Azul. Relentless, ruthless, and intent on building an insurmountable lead, La Machina laid highlighted the lingering Liga MX-MLS divide.
For Sporting, it was a bad night. It was a terrible night. It was a night that nobody around the MLS champions could have envisioned when they took off for Mexico City. And if anybody near Cruz Azul saw this coming, their veins are probably full of Machina blue. This was an aberration.
But it’s an aberration that broke against MLS, and embarrassingly so. This was MLS’s best, as crowned in December. And it was Mexico’s best, according to the current standings. While Cruz Azul does have the advantage of being fully in-season, is that advantage worth four goals? Especially when Sporting knew this game was coming? Considering the Galaxy ultimately lost by one in Tijuana while San Jose get a draw at Toluca, it’s difficult to apply the “out of season” excuse.
Sporting were just bad, giving a performance they won’t be able to redeem until the next Champions League. On a night when San Jose nearly advanced to the semifinals, the defending champions provided a stark, surprising contrast to MLS’s positive potential.