Sporting Kansas City coach Peter Vermes likens a long soccer season — especially one filled with matches in multiple competitions — to taking a trip to the Grand Canyon.
The view from afar, he explains, is attractive enough to prevent some tourists from moving any closer. But the most exhilarating moments come to those who are willing to creep toward the edge.
A four-game losing streak earlier this month told Vermes that perhaps his club was too content with its view. But the team has responded with a pair of convincing victories, the most recent of which defender Matt Besler called one of its best performances of the season.
Has Sporting KC returned to the edge?
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"I feel like we're approaching this area," Vermes said, using his hands to show the edge of a cliff. "I think we're close. And when we're right here like this, that's when we play well."
It would make for good timing.
Sporting KC found its stride about this time last year when it rode a hot streak to winning its CONCACAF Champions League group and later the MLS Cup championship.
In search of another group-stage victory, it can take a stranglehold of CCL Group 2 on Tuesday, when it plays host to Nicaraguan club Real Esteli.
Sporting KC defeated Deportivo Saprissa 3-1 last Thursday to assume control of the group. That came on the heels of a 4-0 shutout of Chivas USA in MLS play.
The victory against Saprissa gave Sporting KC four points through two CCL matches. Saprissa is tied atop the group standings, but it has already played three matches.
Real Esteli, meanwhile, closes out group play Tuesday in search of its first victory in the competition.
"Our feeling is that we have to, first and foremost, protect our home games," forward Graham Zusi said "If we can get wins there, that puts us in a great spot. We've already got a point on the road. So this puts us in a good place, but it puts a lot of importance on Tuesday night. If we don't get a win there, we're back in a tough spot."
Oddly enough, Real Esteli represents a familiar opponent for Sporting KC. The two teams will be playing their fourth match against each other over the past 13 months. Sporting KC is 1-0-2 in the first three meetings.
But the club is less concerned about its history and more concerned with its recent run of play. After a match Tuesday against Real Esteli, Sporting KC will resume MLS action. It trails D.C. United by three points in the race for the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
Besler said a pair of victories — even if one came against a non-MLS opponent — has returned confidence to the team.
"There are a lot of theories when things go wrong, but the best way to gain confidence back is to win," Besler said. "It's difficult when you're losing to go out and play with confidence. The only way to truly get your confidence back is by having success. It that's simple."
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REAL ESTELI AT SPORTING KANSAS CITY
▪ WHAT: CONCACAF Champions League group stage
▪ WHEN/WHERE: 7 p.m. Tuesday, at Sporting Park
▪ TV: Fox Sports 1
▪ ABOUT REAL ESTELI: The club has won its first four matches in the Nicaraguan Primera Division, outscoring opponents 11-3. Veteran forward Rudel Calero leads the league with four goals. Real Esteli has won the seven straight league titles.
▪ ABOUT SPORTING KC: Keeper Eric Kronberg will make his return to the lineup after a paperwork issue prevented him from being a late addition to the roster Thursday against Saprissa. Kronberg has not played since July 6 after breaking a bone in his left hand.
▪ BOTTOM LINE: Sporting KC and Saprissa are tied atop the three-team group with four points each, though Sporting KC has played one fewer game. Sporting KC can take commanding control of the group with a win Tuesday. It closes out the group stage with a trip to Saprissa on Oct. 23.
▪ PREDICTION: Sporting KC 2, Real Esteli 0