In the days leading to a scheduled trip to Houston two weeks ago, Sporting Kansas City coach Peter Vermes walked off the practice field, turned toward an assistant coach and offered an evaluation of the club’s current form.
“That was one of the best practices we’ve had all year,” Vermes said. “Great week.”
The outing to Houston — the payoff for the successful week of training — never happened. The looming path of Hurricane Harvey postponed the match.
On a much less important scale, Hurricane Harvey gave Sporting KC a 17-day break between matches. That’s allowed the club plenty of time to look ahead in its schedule.
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A significant stretch awaits.
Sporting KC will play six games over the next 25 days, opening with a trip to Yankee Stadium on Wednesday to face New York City FC. During the September session, there’s a championship at stake in one tournament and the potential to solidify playoff footing in another competition.
“It’s a really big next few weeks for us,” Vermes said. “We’re going to have to be diligent in how we manage things like player availability and the roster.”
Let’s start with the championship. Sporting KC will face the New York Red Bulls on Sept. 20 in the U.S. Open Cup final, the chance to raise a trophy in front of its home fans inside Children’s Mercy Park. A victory would provide the franchise’s fourth championship — MLS and Open Cup combined — in six years.
Then there’s the MLS playoff battle. Unlike 2015, when Sporting KC last won the U.S. Open Cup title, the club is in a position to compete for a first-round bye in a tightly-packed Western Conference. Sporting KC sits in third place in the West, but it has played two fewer matches than first-place Seattle and three fewer than second-place Portland. It leads both clubs in points per match.
So with less than two months left in the regular season, the ensuing 25 days stand to determine much of Sporting Kansas City’s playoff fate. A first-round bye — awarded to the top-two teams in each conference — would guarantee Sporting KC a home MLS playoff match for the first time since it won the 2013 MLS Cup. Likely no coincidence, that remains the last playoff match the team has won.
Each of the six games within the stretch offers its own challenges. On Wednesday, when Sporting KC plays in New York, it will likely be without half its back line. Matt Besler and Graham Zusi were with the United States national team in Honduras on Tuesday.
The match will also require some adaptation. Yankee Stadium is only 70 yards wide, the minimum standard in MLS. To prepare for those dimensions, Sporting KC re-lined its practice fields this week, moving the sidelines to narrow the field.
It’s had a long time to prepare, at least.
Sporting KC has attempted to maintain its practice intensity — which prompted Vermes’ aforementioned compliment — during the 17-day layoff by playing a pair of scrimmages each of the last two weekends.
“We tried to replicate it so it’s like we’re still playing, but it’s obviously not a real game, so it can be hard to replicate that same rhythm,” Vermes said. “But I don’t have any other way to manufacture real games other than the scrimmage. We’ll see Wednesday if that preparation was good enough.”
SPORTING KANSAS CITY AT NEW YORK CITY FC
WHEN/WHERE: 6:30 p.m. Wednesday; at Yankee Stadium, New York
TV/RADIO: Fox Sports KC
PREDICTION: Sporting KC 1, New York City FC 1