Having lost their MLS opener 2-1 Sunday in the final seconds at LAFC, Sporting KC traveled to Panama to play CAI in the first leg of their quarterfinal series of the CONCACAF Champions League Wednesday. CAI is considered by many to be maybe the worst team remaining in the tournament but Sporting played just three starters and lost 2-1. The second leg of the series will be played at Children’s Mercy Park on Thursday.
The only starters who manager Peter Vermes decided to start in this game were Matt Besler, Roger Espinoza and Ilie Sanchez. Regular forwards Johnny Russell and Gerso Fernandez entered the game as substitutes with less than 20 minutes to play with the club already down 2-1.
The lineup Vermes put on the field is confusing. He didn’t mix and match second string players with the first string in the game at LAFC and again against CAI in Panama. Vermes played his starting 11 in both legs of the first round of the CCL against Toluca and then again Sunday at LAFC. That pretty much forced his hand into resting most of the first team in Panama. That might have been his plan all along. Or was the fact they were playing CAI a factor in his decision? The result was a 2-1 loss but could have been much worse.
Would it have been better to play the second team at LAFC and save the best lineup for the CCL game? Maybe. Sporting KC lost the LAFC even with the first team playing but that’s using hindsight which Vermes does not get to do. You have to think that the first team will be back on the field for the MLS home opener against the Philadelphia Union and then again Thursday at home in the second leg of the series against CAI.
Sporting has tried to tell us that they built their roster for these competitions this year by having two equally good groups of 11 players. It was hard to believe they could do that and be a top team in the MLS. Thursday’s game proved that that’s not the case. There aren’t two equal groups of 11 players. There is a clear first team and a clear second team.
If Sporting wants to rest players the best approach might be rotating the second team players into games along with the first team. Maybe 2-3 second team players every game to rest first team players. Unfortunately, that means you never have your entire first team on the field.
Maybe, however, Peter Vermes made the absolute correct decision. Play the second team in almost every position and be satisfied with a 2-1 deficit after the first leg. If Vermes is confident that his first team can overcome that deficit and win the series his approach might have been perfect. The one goal that Sporting did score in Panama could go a long way towards helping them as road goals are used as a tie-breaker if the cumulative score of the two legs ends in a tie.
I find it hard to imagine that Sporting will shutout CAI on Thursday. CAI has some fast forwards that will put a lot of pressure on Sporting’s defense. Of course, maybe they don’t get near as many opportunities with the entire first team for Sporting on the field.
Thursday should be a very intriguing game. However, before that happens we have the MLS home opener to play. The emphasis should be on the Champions League games at this point. Winning the Champions League could increase the soccer following in Kansas City even more than another MLS cup as great as that would be to win. Regardless, it’s a long season and it looks like it will be a fun one.