The opening month of Sporting Kansas City’s season featured five matches in only 15 days — a taxing schedule that forced the club to weigh the importance of improving its MLS standing versus advancing in the CONCACAF Champions League.
The final week of the season will provide a full-circle ending.
Over the next four days, Sporting KC will attempt to win its CCL group before turning its attention to securing a spot in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Two key matches. Two different competitions.
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The journey starts with a trip to Costa Rica on Thursday to face Deportivo Saprissa. A victory, tie or one-goal loss would clinch Sporting KC first place in Group Two and a spot in the CCL knockout stage next spring.
Next: The MLS regular-season finale. Sporting KC will play host to the New York Red Bulls on Sunday, hoping to avoid a date in the Eastern Conference knockout round.
“It could be a really successful week,” midfielder Benny Feilhaber said. “Or it could be a really frustrating week.
“But having said that, I think we have the right guys in place to make something positive out of it, even though we’re missing some of the big-time guys on our team. That’s not something we’ve used as an excuse this season, and we’re not going to start now.”
Because of those injuries — captain Matt Besler and goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum won’t play Thursday, while C.J. Sapong and Claudio Bieler are questionable — coach Peter Vermes has scrapped the one-game-at-a-time mantra.
With only two days off sandwiched between two critical matches — and one of those spent returning to the country — Vermes is filling out his lineup Thursday with Sunday in the back of his mind.
Which players can remain fresh 72 hours after playing a full match? Which ones should be saved for the MLS finale? How many options are there anyway, given the latest injuries?
“There are too many variables, so I’m kind of taking my time on what the lineup is going to be,” Vermes said. “Because of all the injuries, all the guys that are banged up, I have to be really smart about that. It’s a much shorter turnaround than we normally deal with.”
That variability extends to the goalkeeping situation. Sporting KC is unsure how long a calf strain will keep Gruenebaum sidelined. If he is unavailable Sunday — which seems likely — Vermes could opt to rest Eric Kronberg on Thursday.
Kronberg enjoyed his best performance in three games since returning from a hand injury that sidelined him for two months, though it came during a 2-1 loss in Philadelphia.
“I definitely felt like my rhythm was back and my positioning was better and my timing was better,” Kronberg said. “I’m just trying to progress more and more and finish out this year strong and get some results.
“I think the team is doing the same thing.”
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SPORTING KC AT DEPORTIVO SAPRISSA
WHEN/WHERE: 9 p.m. Thursday; at Estadio Ricardo Saprissa Ayma, San Jose, Costa Rica
ABOUT SPORTING KC: The club is 2-0-1 in Group Two, which includes a 3-1 home win against Saprissa on Sept. 18. Sporting KC is looking to advance to the CCL knockout stage for the second straight season.
ABOUT SAPRISSA: With an 11-9-5 all-time record in CCL play, Saprissa was initially seen as the biggest threat to Sporting KC’s chances to win the group. Nothing has changed there. Saprissa is 1-1-1 in Group Two. It has lost only twice in 12 home CCL matches.
BOTTOM LINE: Sporting KC would win the group and advance to the knockout stage with a win, tie or one-goal loss. Saprissa would win the group with a three-goal victory. If Saprissa wins 2-0, it will advance. If Saprissa wins 3-1, a drawing will determine the group winner.
PREDICTION: Sporting KC 2, Saprissa 2