When Sporting Kansas City walks into TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis on Saturday, the team will be 217 days removed from the cold evening in Washington, D.C., that opened its season. Thirty games later, the season could still swing in a myriad of directions.
Just four matches remain in the regular season, a stretch to determine if Sporting KC earns a home playoff game for the first time since 2013. To determine if the club can secure homefield advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs. To determine if it makes the postseason at all. All are still in play over the final two-plus weeks.
Three key starters won’t be.
Captain Matt Besler, defender Graham Zusi and midfielder Benny Feilhaber are with the United States men’s national team for World Cup qualifying matches. The trio of MLS veterans will miss Saturday’s match in Minnesota and likely the makeup date with Houston on Wednesday, too.
“There’s nothing we can do about it,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said. “None of us like the international break in regards to losing players, but it’s part of what we do.”
“It’s just the way our sport is,” Feilhaber added.
It’s unique, if not altogether nonexistent, in other American professional sports, but it’s something to which MLS teams have grown accustomed — grinding through the final stretch of their seasons while players are plucked off their rosters.
MLS takes multiple international breaks during the season to accommodate national team matches scattered throughout the year, including for the monthlong Gold Cup earlier this summer. The discomfort about this weekend is the timing — the absences arrive in the midst of a playoff race.
“I think the difficulty is being that it’s a World Cup qualifying time, you can’t get away from it,” Vermes said, later adding, “Maybe it would be better to see at this time of the year, maybe a break for the whole entire league. But then what happens when you have Gold Cup in the summer time? That’s an extended period of time you’re also going to lose players. I think it’s just really difficult to navigate with so many teams and so many games. It’s not an easy thing to schedule.”
So, the looming reality: Sporting KC will try to clinch a playoff spot Saturday (with a victory) and climb the standings without its top lineup. Minnesota will also be without several starters Saturday.
A lot can happen in the final 16 days. Sporting KC isn’t technically guaranteed a place in the postseason yet, and on the other hand, it remains in the thick of the battle for one of the top-two seeds, which come with first-round byes.
Some backups will help dictate which end of the spectrum Sporting KC leans. It’s the reason depth matters in the league, beyond protecting for potential injuries. Jimmy Medranda has filled that role consistently this season, playing on all three lines — defense, midfield and wing — and he figures to slot in for Feilhaber this weekend.
“It’s a little bit different because you have to prepare to play a lot of different positions,” Medranda said. “But when (the coaches) ask you to play, you don’t care where it is.”
Sporting KC made depth a point of emphasis this offseason, bringing in more players than it relinquished. Vermes insists the team is in a good spot to account for the three U.S. national team call-ups — with Medranda, Erik Palmer-Brown and Saad Abdul-Salaam the likely replacements.
“One man’s absence is another man’s opportunity,” Vermes said. “So the guys that get a chance are going to have to step up and do the business. I know we’re at the end of the season, and we have a few games that are coming up here and points are important, but I don’t think they’re any different than points we’ve tried to accumulate over all the other games. We’re just going to have to do our best with whoever goes out on the field. I always believe whatever team we put on the field is good enough to get the result.”