CCL 2014-15: Group 2 Preview – Real Esteli, Saprissa & Sporting Kansas City
Austin Fido continues the CCL preview action with a survey of the 2014-15 edition’s Group 2…
If Group 1 is the toughest overall group for a Liga MX club in this year’s CCL, Group 2 can lay claim to offering the most difficult challenge to a MLS team.
Just don’t call it an upset if Sporting Kansas City gets knocked out of this tournament early…
Group 2: Real Estelí, Saprissa, Sporting Kansas City
This group might look familiar because Sporting Kansas City and Real Estelí were in it last year too. The newcomer is Saprissa, a team presumed capable of challenging a MLS club even before the World Cup made it fashionable to respect Costa Rican football.
Real Estelí won both titles last season in Nicaragua. It was the club’s eighth consecutive league win, and it claims to have won the most consecutive titles in CONCACAF. No one seems to be challenging the assertion.
Unfortunately, in CCL El Tren del Norte tends to derail pretty quickly: this is its fifth appearance in the regional tournament, but it has never made the knockout rounds.
But the team has hung on to most of the core of the squad that troubled Sporting Kansas City on its own ground last year. Brazilian defender Alan Kardek, young ‘keeper Justo Lorente and attacker Rudel Calero are all still around; so too is ageless (actually 36) midfielder Elmer Mejía, now entering his eleventh season for Real Estelí.
So there is continuity, which is encouraging. But continuity for a team which lost three out of four last year, and scored just one goal, may not be the ideal solution for cracking CCL.
Saprissa deserves to be regarded as favorite in this group: the club has won the regional title three times, most recently in 2005, and finished third at the same year’s Club World Cup. The last time it was in CCL – the 2010-11 edition – it made the semifinals (losing to RSL).
It is currently working its way through the Copa Costa Rica, where back-to-back 4-2 wins have delivered a two-legged semifinal against Herediano that will conclude just before the team heads out to Nicaragua to start its CCL work.
This doesn’t feel like a squad of extraordinary talent, like the 2005 CONCACAF Champions Cup winners. Back then, Saprissa’s team included Christian Bolaños, Álvaro Saborío and a backup ‘keeper called Keylor Navas.
Still, the 2014 edition of La S does feature Costa Rican World Cup heroes Michael Umaña and Yeltsin Tejeda (though he may yet be bound for England). Heiner Mora only missed out on Brazil due to injury (and will likely miss a little CCL for the same reason). Kendall Waston and Hansell Araúz were on the standby list.
Until the relatively recent emergence of Dom Dwyer, KC felt like a team based more around superlative defensive organization and a midfield sufficiently creative to get goals out of whatever bodies were floating around up top.
Peter Vermes started the season with the best back four in the league: Chance Myers, Aurelien Collin, Matt Besler, and Seth Sinovic. They’re all still on the roster, but injuries, the World Cup and suspensions mean they haven’t played much together this year – nor will they: Myers is out for the year.
Improbably, Vermes has shuffled his squad adeptly and coaxed his hobbled team into a long shot at the Supporters’ Shield. KC is the best team in the East at the moment, and the hottest team in MLS, despite being among the most damaged.
This bodes well for a CCL campaign that will likely have to be combined with the club’s presumed ambition of – at minimum – winning the Eastern Conference. Assuming KC doesn’t eventually run out of available players, Vermes has stress-tested his squad depth in a way most MLS clubs usually reserve for CCL.
Group 2 Upset Outlook: LOW
It’s insulting to call Saprissa getting out of this group an upset. If anything, the Costa Ricans are favorites, since they will host Kansas City on the final match day. If it’s still mathematically possible for La S to progress by October 23rd, it has every right to consider itself the likely winner of Group 2.
As such, Sporting Kansas City and its patchwork defense are under pressure from the start to rack up points – particularly in September, when the club has no MLS interruption between its home games against Saprissa on 9/18 and Real Estelí on 9/23.
The Nicaraguans look to have no chance of getting past two regional heavyweights, but they could decide which team does get through. Another surprise draw in Kansas City, or a shock result over Saprissa, and the advantage moves to whichever team hasn’t dropped points to El Tren del Norte.
This is where the schedule appears to favor Saprissa slightly. MLS elected to have its All-Star game in the first week of August, which can be presumed to be the reason there is only one team from the league playing the first round of CCL group games.
Last year, KC got to visit Nicaragua in early August, when Real Estelí was barely out of preseason. A comfortable 2-0 win on the road was the result. Playing the same opponents at home in September, when they were a little better prepared perhaps and KC’s eyes were on the playoffs: 1-1.
Sporting had similar difficulty handling Olimpia (also comfortably beaten on the road in August) in October – and the dropped points resulted in a low seed and an ultimately humiliating defeat by Cruz Azul in the quarterfinals.
This year, Saprissa gets first crack at Real Estelí, and will have played both its games against the Nicaraguans before the end of August.
It is early season for the Costa Ricans too, but if Saprissa can walk into Sporting Park on September 18 with six points, it will have a slight advantage – not least because KC will know any dropped points will have to be recovered in Costa Rica in October.
It is the scenario Saprissa will be seeking: one which sees it in front of its home crowd playing an opponent with half an eye on its post-season. It is also the scenario KC will be seeking to avoid, which is why you may find the club’s fans have an unusual affection for Nicaraguan football in the first week of August.
The upset outlook for this group is low because it’s hardly an upset if Saprissa gets to the quarterfinals. But this is the toughest challenge any MLS side will face in this year’s CCL group stage.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Real Estelí: Rudel Calero
He scored Real Estelí’s only goal of the last tournament, and it can be presumed they’ll need one or two this time around to challenge their status as Group 2 makeweights.
Saprissa: Gabriel Badilla
Aside from a brief sojourn to MLS with New England Revolution, Badilla is a Saprissa man. He started his career with La S back in 2001, and the 30-year-old seems likely to retire in purple also. He’s also the link to the club’s 2005 regional championship – he was part of that team, and the one which won the World Club Cup third-place playoff in Yokohama.
There aren’t many players who recover their careers after heart surgery (his was last June). If you see Badilla on the field during CCL, raise a glass of something appropriately beneficial to cardiac health to the man.
Sporting Kansas City: Jorge Claros
Claros is perhaps best known for surviving an attempted carjacking in 2011, but he’s a solid defensive midfielder with more caps for his country than the last Honduran to fill the role for KC, Roger Espinoza.
When he signed for Sporting, it looked as though Peter Vermes was not just trying to plug the gap in the team left by Uri Rosell’s departure, but also take the edge off the expected loss of Matt Besler and Graham Zusi to Europe. But those guys stayed, and now Claros looks like the sort of midfield leader who could help KC win points in CCL while his more exalted teammates take a breather.
Group 2, Matchday 1: August 6 – Real Estelí vs. Saprissa – 9:00 pm (Chicago time)
Follow @OTFSoccer for CCL coverage updates
OTF’s Austin Fido tweets erratically @canetop. Always allow a safe stopping distance when following.