Mexican powerhouse Cruz Azul rolled into town Wednesday to take on Sporting KC in the first leg of the CCL.
And what would have been thought of as a major mismatch a few years ago certainly was not that on this night.
“They are still as athletic and strong as we have always known them to be,” explained Azul manager Luis Fernanda Tena. “They have always had this characteristic, but now you see very technically gifted players as well. You see that improvement to the point where MLS and Mexican teams are very even in terms of quality.”
It looked a little less than full when I got into Sporting Park. But that could be because of the more stringent rules in place for non-MLS games that prohibit people from standing in certain places that are normally packed out during MLS play, like the north end bridge above the Cauldron, for example.
And there was a strong Mexican contingent in the house, though they didn’t really have a designated section. Which was cool, because with fans of both teams intermingled together throughout the stadium, it made for a great competitive atmosphere.
That atmosphere helped propel both teams to 90 minutes of intense soccer. At no point in time did either team let off the gas pedal even for a second, which made for quite an entertaining match.
Sporting KC started the game strong, creating the first good chance of the game in the 9th minute when Graham Zusi found the end of a bouncing ball in the box, but he totally scuffed it with his left foot, sending the ball out for a throw.
Just a few minutes later, after a half-cleared Sporting corner, Claudio Bieler showed his class, playing an outside of the foot diagonal ball towards the corner to find a streaking Kevin Ellis. The homegrown player’s touch was perfect, taking down the difficult ball one touch, scooting to his right, and burying it in between two Cruz defenders near post for his first career goal.
“The ball popped out, but I stayed up and Claudio hit a world class ball with the outside of his right foot,” explained Ellis. “I just took a touch, put my head down, took another touch and hit it and hoped it went in and it did.”
The young defender’s play so far this season has been pleasantly surprising in the absence of regular starter Chance Myers. Ellis plays with a physicality and reckless abandon that few other players do. Chance may want to speed his recovery if he wants his job back.
The second half started with a break away for Cruz as the result of a blown offside call. Eric Kronberg came out well to cut the angle down though, and Ike Opara cleared the ball off the endline after the bad angle effort.
Sporting pushed back, though, and you could tell they weren’t satisfied with the one goal heading to Mexico City next week.
In the 64th minute, Zusi ripped a looper off the crossbar that Azul’s keeper just watched with nothing to do.
When the final whistle finally blew, Sporting was happy with the one goal, but cautiously so with the return leg right around the corner.
“We worked very hard and it’s a shame we could not get a second goal,” commented KC boss Peter Vermes afterwards. “We had some very good chances. But all in all, I think our work ethic ruled the day. But if you really take it over a 90-minute match, this is the first half and we have another half to play when we go to Mexico. We still have a big challenge in front of us.”