Sporting KC

Sporting won’t put pressure on itself heading into playoffs

Updated: 2013-11-01T23:51:05Z

By KATHLEEN GIER

The Kansas City Star

Heading into their third playoff appearance in as many years, Sporting Kansas City wants to keep it simple.

Defender Matt Besler said that when the team met earlier this week it decided not to focus so much on the opponents, but just to be themselves.

“I think that we’ve been consistent enough over the year that we can gain a lot of confidence from that I know that every guy in there believes that if we play our best, we can beat anybody,” said defender Matt Besler.

Sporting will get their first test Saturday when they travel to Gillette Stadium to take on the New England Revolution at 7 p.m. in the conference semifinals of the MLS Cup Playoffs.

The Revolution ended the regular season with three straight victories, which matched its longest winning streak of the season, to clinch its first postseason berth in four years. New England is undefeated in its last six games.

“History has shown in the playoffs that a team that is playing well at the end of the season usually does well, and New England fits that mold,” Besler said. “The second half of the year, they’ve been one of the best teams in MLS so we will have to be ready to play.”

However, Sporting hasn’t had much trouble against them lately leading the season series 1-0-1 and holding the Revolution scoreless through their last five meeting dating back to a 1-1 draw on July 30, 2011.

Sporting KC enters the playoffs with the second-best record in the Eastern League. Sporting is riding a four-game undefeated streak and has won six of its last eight league matches.

While an away match may be a daunting task for some teams in the first round of the playoffs, Sporting KC has thrived on the road leading MLS with eight wins and allowing just 15 goals.

“I don’t think that you have to do anything magical or different, you need to stick to the things you are very good at,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said. “Those things have been that we have been very good on the road, we haven’t given up a ton of goals, we have been very difficult to play against defensively and we’ve found a way to get points wherever we needed them. From that perspective, really nothing is going to change.”

One thing that will be different about the playoffs this time around is that for the first time in three years, Sporting KC will not be a No. 1 seed.

“The way that we’re approaching it is that we don’t have pressure,” Besler said. “New York has the top seed this year so the pressure is on them and the pressure is on LA to repeat. The pressure is on Seattle because they have the new DPs and all that. It is refreshing to take that approach for us.”

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MLS CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS

The Major League Soccer conference semifinals are a two-game, home-and-away series with the lower-seeded team hosting the first leg. The winner is determined by aggregate goals over those two games. Should the results be split over two games and the teams level on aggregate goals, two 15-minute overtime periods following the second match will be played its entirety. If the score is still tied, the winner will be determined by a penalty kick shootout.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Sporting Kansas City (17-10-7, 58 points) vs. New England Revolution (14-11-9, 51 points)

TIME/TV: 7 p.m., KSMO-TV

IN THE REGULAR SEASON: Kansas City won the season series with a thumping home victory (3-0 on Aug. 10) and a listless draw (0-0 in March 23). Matches between these two often finish with ejections — in the last seven matches, there have been five red cards handed out (four to New England, including two in August).

ABOUT KANSAS CITY: Peter Vermes’ squad put up some impressive numbers this year. Mostly on the road. Sporting KC won eight games away from Sporting Park this year and was the only MLS team with a winning road record. Most of that success can be chalked up to another stellar year from defenders Matt Besler, Aurelien Collin and Ike Opara. The defense in front of goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen allowed just 15 goals on the road, never allowed more than two goals in a single road game and hasn’t allowed more than one goal away from home since June 22. Of course, the picture wasn’t nearly as pretty home. Kansas City lost as many home games this season (five) as it had in 2011 and 2012 combined.

ABOUT NEW ENGLAND: Since losing to Kansas City in August, the Revs have morphed into a completely different team, capable of putting up lofty offensive numbers (22 goals in its last 11 games). The season opened up as coach Jay Heaps started to trust his young attacking core of 18-year-old Diego Fagundez (13 goals, seven assists), 20-year-old Juan Agudelo (seven goals in 14 games with the Revs) and Kelyn Rowe (seven goals, eight assists). The defense, which started the season solid with newcomer Jose Goncalves, has sprung a few leaks down the stretch (13 goals allowed in September/October).

BOTTOM LINE: For Kansas City to have any hope of moving on and avoiding an early exit, Peter Vermes needs to sort out the team’s problems on offense. Since Kei Kamara left in September, Sporting KC’s forwards have produced just six goals, and half came in one game on Sept. 7 against Columbus. Designated player and leading scorer Claudio Bieler hasn’t played much the last two months. In his place, Vermes has relied on the faltering trio of Dom Dwyer (two MLS goals in 16 appearances), Soony Saad (four goals in 23 appearances) and C.J. Sapong (four goals, two of which came against Toronto in September). Thankfully, Graham Zusi has picked up some of the slack (six goals, eight assists) and has carried a lot of the offensive burden. Vermes will likely need him to perform at his best to carry this team until the goals arrive.

PREDICTION: Kansas City 1, New England 1

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Portland Timbers (15-5-15, 57 points) vs. Seattle Sounders FC (15-12-7, 52 points)

TIME/TV: 9 p.m., NBC Sports Network

IN THE REGULAR SEASON: The Cascadia rivals evenly split the three-game series: Each picked up a 1-0 home win and a draw (in Seattle in March). Under Caleb Porter, the Timbers play some of the most attractive attacking soccer in the league. Attacking midfielder Diego Valeri (10 goals, 13 assists) has especially come on strong the last few months. On the other side, Seattle sputtered into the playoffs but not without offensive firepower, with Clint Dempsey, Eddie Johnson and Obafemi Martins. After Wednesday’s 2-0 win over Colorado in the play-in game, the Sounders might finally have found some form together.

BOTTOM LINE: Between the crowds (average attendance in the three meetings this year: 42,736), Portland’s fast-paced attacking style (this could be forward Darlington Nagbe’s breakout moment) and Seattle’s potential (Martins and Dempsey haven’t played much together), this has the potential to be an epic series. But Portland’s vastly-improved defense (led by KC castaways Michael Harrington and Jack Jewsbury) will be the X-factor. Seattle will use veteran back-up goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann with starter Michael Gspurning suspended.

PREDICTION: Seattle 1, Portland 1

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