Sporting Kansas City head into the match at Sporting Park on Wednesday (8 p.m.) with some work to do, down a goal to the New England Revolution after a 2-1 loss.
The Kansas City Star
But, Sporting KC isn't alone. Proving the precise difficulty of the current Major League Soccer playoff structure (two-leg aggregate series with the lower-seeded team hosting the first leg), only one of the four higher-seeded teams will enter the second leg with a lead: The Portland Timbers beat the Seattle Sounders 2-1 on Saturday.*
*How about those four games this weekend? I might not agree with the MLS playoff format as it is (it doesn't protect the higher seeds at all and doesn't make the tournament progressively more difficult), but it yielded several very exciting games. Really, except for the first half of the SKC-New England game, every game was really fun to watch as a neutral.
Of those three teams that fell to lower seeds on the road (New York, Salt Lake and Kansas City), if you allow yourself to be an optimist, Kansas City might be in the best position.
The New York Red Bulls took a seemingly commanding lead over the Houston Dynamo on Sunday, but saw the two-goal advantage disintegrate down a man in the second half. With no weight given to away goals, the Red Bulls and Dynamo essentially are starting a winner-take-all match in New York on Thursday. Only, New York will have to do it without its best defender (Jamison Olave is suspended after a red-card ejection in the first game) and having squandered its momentum.
Real Salt Lake fell to the Los Angeles Galaxy 1-0 on Sunday night. Salt Lake probably feels pretty confident about picking up a victory at home, but the Galaxy (looking for a third-straight MLS Cup) aren't your typical lower-seeded playoff opponent. Since MLS went to the two-leg aggregate series structure, the Galaxy haven't lost a playoff series since 2003 and are 25-10 all-time in playoff series.
While Kansas city does have a challenge on its hand, it's not a mountain to climb. And the math is simple: Kansas City must win by two goals (or win by 1 goal and head to overtime/shootout). A draw won't work. A loss would definitely not work.
Here's my simple MLS playoff thought: If you are considered a legitimate MLS Cup candidate, you should be able to win a must-win game by a score of 2-0 at home.
What Kansas City might have an issue with, however, is a very familiar challenge: Can Peter Vermes and the offense figure out how to score against a bunkered team? It's been a problem in each of the last three seasons and it's been a massive problem down the stretch this year.
Since Sept. 7 (the first game after Kei Kamara left for Europe), Kansas City's forwards have scored just six goals in eight MLS games. Three of those came against Columbus (on Sept. 7) and two against Toronto (Sept. 21). The other goal? Dom Dwyer against D.C. United on Oct. 18.
Basically, Kansas City's forwards scored against three teams that didn't make the playoffs. In the other six games, the goals have come from defenders Ike Opara and Aurelien Collin (one each), Graham Zusi (was a forward, but is playing in midfield now), and Lawrence. Olum.
That's not exactly a comforting thought. Especially if leading scorer Claudio Bieler's absence (for whatever reason) continues.
According to MLSsoccer.com's Andrew Wiebe, Bieler's omission on Saturday was a "tactical decision" by Peter Vermes.
Kyle McCarthy reported to The Star on Saturday night that the team had concerns about Bieler's form after he suffered a groin injury in September and that he had fallen down the pecking order.
That hasn't stopped the conspiracy theories from spinning.
Personally, I don't think an out-of-form Bieler gives you much right now. Besides a penalty kick goal back in September, he's not been clicking in this offense. His last open-play goal? Against Toronto on July 13.
For bette or worse, we'll know a lot more on Wednesday night.