Sporting Kansas City defeated Panamanian side Independiente 3-0 on Thursday night at Children’s Mercy Park to claim a 4-2 comeback victory on aggregate in the Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League Quarterfinals.
A strike from Roger Espinoza was bookended by two Krisztian Nemeth goals as Sporting used a rampant second-half performance to reach the Concacaf Champions League Semifinals for the first time in team history, setting up a monumental battle against Mexican giants Monterrey in the next round of North America’s most prestigious club tournament.
As the lone MLS representative in the semifinal field, Sporting will visit Monterrey for the first leg at Estadio BBVA Bancomer before hosting Los Rayados in the decisive return fixture. Champions League semifinal windows are slated for April 2-4 and April 9-11, with exact dates and kickoff times to be announced in the near term.
The hosts dominated a breathless encounter from wire to wire-outshooting Independiente 27-5 in the process-but had to wait until the 74th minute to grab the lead on Nemeth’s close-range finish. Espinoza doubled the advantage seven minutes later before Nemeth put the game, and the series, out of reach with his Champions League-leading fourth goal of the tournament on 86 minutes.
Espinoza and forward Daniel Salloi accounted for the two lineup changes from Sporting’s 2-0 league win over the Philadelphia Union on Sunday, replacing Gianluca Busio and Gerso Fernandes, respectively. On the backline, veteran defender Graham Zusi reached a major milestone with his 300th appearance for Sporting in all competitions, second-most all-time behind fellow teammate and club captain Matt Besler.
Salloi was active and involved early, seeing two shots blocked through traffic following excellent build-ups in the attacking third, but the Sporting KC Academy product was forced off injured in the 21st minute. Gerso Fernandes was summoned as his replacement and featured prominently over the final 45 minutes amidst a steady drizzle at Children’s Mercy Park.
Manager Peter Vermes’ side enjoyed the lion’s share of possession and had Independiente on the back foot throughout the evening, but Sporting’s first of 13 shots on target didn’t come until first-half stoppage time. Zusi unleashed a sweetly struck free kick that curled over the wall only to be pushed aside by in-form Independiente goalkeeper Jose Guerra.
The visitors clung desperately to their 2-1 aggregate lead as Sporting applied ceaseless pressure after the restart. After Gerso’s right-footed effort was repelled by Guerra, Espinoza created a superb opportunity with a lovely diagonal ball over the top to Russell. The Scottish international settled the ball on his chest and pulled the trigger from seven yards, prompting Guerra to make another reflex stop.
Gerso was denied by the woodwork in the 58th minute, then Guerra continued his heroics by palming aside Zusi’s low drive and recovering to block Russell’s booming rebound with his face. The Independiente gloveman finished with 10 saves, and arguably none were better than his acrobatic, full-extension stop to thwart Gutierrez from distance in the 66th minute.
Gutierrez was left in further disbelief shortly thereafter when his initial strike from near the penalty spot was saved and his first-touch rebound attempt caromed off the post. All the pent-up frustration would dissipate, however, during a late scoring barrage that ignited Children’s Mercy Park.
Nemeth provided the elusive breakthrough on 74 minutes, volleying into the corner of the net after his fellow countryman and Hungarian international Botond Barath cushioned a header back across the face of goal following a Russell corner kick. The goal was Nemeth’s third of the tournament and leveled the series at 2-2 on aggregate, also giving Sporting the away goals tiebreaker.
Yet Vermes’ men were far from satisfied. A wonderfully worked team goal was manufactured in the 81st minute, as Gerso’s low cross was met by Russell and steered unselfishly into the path of Espinoza, who hammered high into the roof of the net for his first career international goal at the club level.
Having finally been pierced after over an hour of admirable resistance, Independiente were unable to stop the bleeding in the game’s dying embers. Nemeth bagged his second of the night and his fourth of the competition four minutes from full time, sliding to redirect Gerso’s low delivery into the far corner to become Sporting’s all-time leading scorer in international competitions.
Any immediate rest for Sporting will have to wait, as the club will now travel west for Sunday’s MLS matchup against the Colorado Rapids at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. The St. Patrick’s Day fixture will kick off at 8 p.m. CT, with FOX Sports Kansas City and FOX Sports Midwest Plus televising three hours of live coverage beginning with Sporting KC Live presented by Bud Light at 7:30 p.m. CT. Local radio broadcasts will also air on ESPN 94.5 FM and ESPN Deportes KC 1480 AM. Colorado’s roster features three former Sporting players in Benny Feilhaber, Kei Kamara and Diego Rubio.