It was certainly no easy task getting to Esteli, Nicaragua for the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League. After the long flight to Managua, where Sporting Kansas City spent the night, they got up and took a 3 hour bus ride to the stadium in Esteli, a city of about 100,000 known best for its cigar production.
Though by all standards Real Esteli is an inferior team, games like this are always a challenge. There’s the travel, the accommodations which are sometimes lacking, the food, the playing surface, the referees (I’ll get back to this part).
All in all, it’s tough traveling thousands of miles to a tiny stadium in the mountains of Central America and coming away with a win. But that’s exactly what Sporting did Wednesday, in a game that probably not a lot of people were able to view since it was only shown on Fox Soccer Plus.
KC didn’t exactly field its A team, but it wasn’t that far from it.
Soony Saad, Dom Dwyer, and Jacob Peterson got the start up top, with Uri, Benny Feilhaber, and Lawrence Olum in the middle, and Aurelien Collin, Mechak Jerome, Ike Opara, and Seth Sinovic in the back. Eric Kronberg got the start between the pipes.
Sporting dominated possession from the get go. Though the field was artificial turf, this didn’t seem to give the boys in blue any problems. Esteli was resigned to trying a few counters, but otherwise didn’t do much effectively.
KC broke through toward the end of the first half when air enforcer Opara skied for a set piece ball from Benny and lofted it into the opposite top corner of the goal, giving the Nicaraguan keeper no chance.
In the second half, Sporting put the win to bed when Dwyer broke through up the middle, beat the last defender, and cut the ball back across his body, wrong-footing the keeper and drilling the ball just inches inside the far post. Very pretty and technical finish there.
Throughout the night, KC battled professionally, and never allowed the referee’s inexplicable calls (and no-calls) to get to them. There were so many tactical fouls in a row at one point in the early second half that the announcers started keeping a count, and were up to 6 or 7.
A tactical foul is usually a straight yellow. Not on this night though. It was clear the ref had in his mind which team would be whistled and which would not.
Hey, that’s how the game is played in Central America. Teams have to know that going in and adjust, and that’s exactly what Sporting did.
“I thought we were very mature,” said KC boss Peter Vermes. “When I look at the way we performed throughout the entire match, we were very, very smart in how we dealt with the outside forces that sometimes can hurt you in a game. I thought we were very, very good in a lot of situations during the course of the game. We kept our composure. We really focused and concentrated on playing our game. Everybody was alert and attentive to that.”
To see more about the epic road trip, check out this travel journal from Sporting media guru, Kurt Austin.