The most significant transformation in Sporting Kansas City franchise history came in 2011, a process in which the club adopted a new name, built a new stadium and moved across the state line. Behind the scenes, the rebranding featured a host of initiatives to re-introduce the soccer team to its hometown.
More subtly, it set a tone for the product on the field, too. After the previous two seasons failed to include playoff berths, Sporting KC reached the Eastern Conference final in 2011. Club CEO Robb Heineman classified the success as the expectation for years to come. And sure enough, in five seasons under its Sporting Kansas City name, the team has never missed the postseason.
The streak either lives on or dies Sunday.
Sporting KC will play host to San Jose at 3 p.m. Sunday at Children’s Mercy Park, a regular season finale that will determine the team’s playoff fate. In a series of complex scenarios, the simplest is this: Sporting KC can clinch a spot in the postseason with a victory.
“It’s a final,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said matter-of-factly. “We’ve played quite a few of them here at (Children’s Mercy) Park, and in recent years at other places as well. The good thing is I feel we’re in pretty good form.”
There are ways in which Sporting KC can reach the postseason with a draw or a loss, but the only guaranteed berth is with a victory. A win would also give the club an outside chance at securing the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference and earning its first home playoff game since it lifted the MLS Cup in 2013.
Every team in the league will kick off at the same time Sunday. San Jose has already been eliminated from playoff contention. But as Sporting KC enters what MLS is calling “Decision Day,” it has the possibility of playing in five different cities for the knockout round of playoffs next week — Kansas City, Seattle, Los Angeles, Portland or Salt Lake.
Or it could play nowhere.
The latter looked like a distinct possibility as recently as June, when Sporting KC endured a stretch of one victory in 11 matches, falling to eighth place in the West. The club spent five weeks underneath the red line.
“It was a very difficult year for us,” captain Roger Espinoza said. “We knew it was tough. But the good thing is everybody on this club stayed positive this whole time. That’s when you realize who your teammates are.”
Perhaps the most concerning development — even more than the seven-game winless streak — was the club’s home performance. From April through May, it played six games inside Children’s Mercy Park and won just once.
But on Sunday, Sporting KC walks into its most consequential match of the season riding an eight-game home unbeaten streak. Another bonus — it arrives with some valuable big-match experience, too.
To clinch its fifth straight postseason berth last October, Sporting KC defeated the LA Galaxy on the final day of the regular season.
The same opportunity awaits Sunday.
“Our guys have been through it before. It’s something they can refer to in their own minds,” Vermes said. “That’s a really good thing to have. Now the question is do you go into the game for 90 minutes and make sure you’re focused and concentrated on all those things. You have to come with that preparation.”