Just four days after burying the Montreal Impact with a seven-goal barrage, Sporting Kansas City found itself on the more painful end of an embarrassing beatdown, enduring a humbling loss that effectively brought another disappointing end to the Concacaf Champions League for Major League Soccer.
Monterrey overwhelmed Sporting KC, rolling to a 5-0 CCL semifinal first-leg victory in Monterrey, leaving Peter Vermes' side all but eliminated and battered just days after its 7-0 drubbing of the Impact.
None of those seven goals helped Sporting KC on Thursday against a Monterrey side that repeatedly punished KC's defense on the counterattack, with Dorlon Pabon leading an onslaught that began with his seventh-minute strike.
The Colombian forward, who torched Atlanta United in the CCL quarterfinals, had his way with Sporting KC left back Seth Sinovic. He scored the opener, then sent in the cross that eventually led to Monterrey's second, played a role in the build-up to Monterrey's third goal and missed what felt like a half-dozen more clear chances before sealing the victory by burying the fifth goal of the night.
As much as Pabon was Monterrey's star, the victory was far from a one-man show. The Mexican side’s quality all over the field was on full display. All 10 Monterrey field players outplayed their Sporting KC counterparts, but it was Pabon and Rodolfo Pizarro's work on the right flank that overwhelmed Sporting KC's defense, which never seemed to get Sinovic the help he so clearly needed.
The second leg at Children's Mercy Park is a mere formality, and the dream final between rivals Monterrey and Tigres seems all but assured after Tigres' emphatic 3-0 first-leg drubbing of Santos Laguna. it will be a final between two of the strongest teams in Mexico, two teams that stand miles ahead of the strongest teams in MLS.
Unlike last year, when Toronto FC's painfully-close CCL final loss to Chivas Guadalajara felt like a missed opportunity and a sign that the gap between MLS and Liga MX had closed a bit more, the 2019 CCL served as a clear and irrefutable reminder that the gap is still considerable, particularly at the top, where teams like Tigres, Monterrey and Club America are on a different level to top MLS teams like Atlanta United, Los Angeles FC and Sporting KC.
Monterrey's thrashing of Sporting KC offered up a very good example of the gulf in class.
Where Sporting KC's defensive weak link is Sinovic, Monterrey's left back is Mexican World Cup defender Jesus Gallardo. Where Sporting KC is still waiting for the big-money striker it has been seemingly waiting on for years, Monterrey boasts Rogelio Funes Mori as its lead striker. While Peter Vermes had no real options to bring off the bench to replace Sinovic, Monterrey had the luxury of introducing Mexico international Miguel Layun, who in fairness would have started if not for a minor injury, in the second half.
The timing of Layun's entry into the match — after Monterrey had scored its fourth goal — felt like a symbolic moment that perfectly illustrated just how different a level Rayados are operating at compared to the best that MLS has to offer. Thursday's victory alone didn't show that. Monterrey's comfortable elimination of Atlanta United also showed it.
MLS will have to regroup once again and accept the reality of life as a league trying to operate with a salary cap against teams that don't restrict what their teams spend. That handicap will continue to handcuff MLS teams against the very top teams in Mexico, and while we will continue to see MLS teams occasionally score victories against Mexican teams, it is tough to see MLS breaking the Liga MX dominance of the Concacaf Champions League any time soon.