Late Sunday night, more than a half hour after Sporting Kansas City lost its regular season finale — which dropped the club into the playoff knockout round — defender Seth Sinovic stood in front of his locker to face the local media.
As a veteran set to embark on his fourth straight postseason with Sporting KC, Sinovic has made a point to take on a more candid, vocal role this season. He doesn’t mince words when the team’s performance isn’t up to standard.
But he opted for a different route this time.
The conversation Sunday quickly turned to the team’s recent run of play. A year after it rode a four-game unbeaten streak into the playoffs — and later won the MLS Cup — it would enter the postseason with only two wins over its past 10 games.
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And it would head into Thursday’s Eastern Conference knockout match in New York with a laundry list of injuries and subsequent question marks — Benny Feilhaber, Igor Juliao and Andy Gruenebaum among them.
Sinovic, however, was quick to shut down that line of thinking.
“We’re still the defending champions,” he said, later adding, “It would be great to go into the game winning four or five in a row, but there’s a lot of teams that would probably take our experience over winning (games) going into the playoffs.
“You can draw it any way you want it, but I’ll take our team over anybody right now.”
If Sporting KC survives Thursday, it will play D.C. United in a two-game Eastern Conference semifinals series. A loss would end a bid for two straight MLS Cups before it gained any traction.
The odds are tall.
Sporting KC was winless in three matches against New York this season — including a 2-0 loss to the Red Bulls on Sunday. But manager Peter Vermes has long been insistent in his belief that past results don’t play into future matchups. The players have adopted that mantra.
“It’s a fresh start,” defender Aurelien Collin said. “We know we cannot make the same mistakes. There’s a lot of pressure. I really like it. I can’t wait to be on the field Thursday. I like the fact that we still have a chance to be champions.”
Even if they haven’t played like it recently. And even if they could be shorthanded once again.
Gruenebaum is unlikely to play Thursday with a lingering calf strain, opening the door for Eric Kronberg to make a fourth straight start in goal.
Feilhaber is still nursing an ankle sprain, and Juliao is trying to work his way back from a hamstring strain. Both made the trip to New York, but they’re considered game-time decisions.
Feilhaber said his ankle injury is similar to ones he has sustained in the past. The swelling has decreased over the past week, and the pain has subsided some, he said, but his mobility remains limited.
“It’s hard to tell how long the process will be, but based on the past, it usually takes about a week,” said Feilhaber, who suffered the injury last Thursday. “It will be pretty 50-50, but we’re doing everything we can to try to speed it up.”
Vermes said several other players are “banged up“ coming out of Sunday’s match. Defender Kevin Ellis was only a limited participant in training Tuesday morning. A few players spoke after the game of playing with tired legs before adding that wouldn’t be an excuse in a playoff game Thursday.
But is three days long enough to fix that problem? Probably not, Vermes acknowledged.
“It’s not an excuse. It’s reality. You can’t be naive. You can’t have blind faith,” Vermes said. “At the same time... I think we’re in the playoffs because we’ve been pretty strong to be able to deal with a lot of stuff and play a lot of different players and get results with those guys.
“With that being said, you have to go play a one-game final now. This is a final. I don’t know how else to look at it.”
SPORTING KANSAS CITY AT NEW YORK RED BULLS
▪ WHEN/WHERE: 7 p.m. Thursday; at Red Bull Arena, Harrison, N.J.
▪ TV/RADIO: ESPN2; WHB (810 AM), La Grand D (1340 AM)
▪ ABOUT SPORTING KC: After battling for the top of the Eastern Conference table for most of the season, the defending MLS champions faded down the stretch, resulting in a spot in the knockout round. The club has won two of its past 10 MLS matches, but it won more road games (eight) during the regular season than any other Eastern Conference team.
▪ ABOUT NEW YORK: Bradley Wright-Phillips tied an MLS record with 27 goals this season, including four against Sporting KC. The Red Bulls have proven tough to beat inside their home stadium, where they went 10-3-4 this season. Their 38 home goals were the most of any team in the Eastern Conference.
▪ BOTTOM LINE: Sporting KC was winless in three matches against New York this season, including a 2-0 loss to the Red Bulls on Sunday.
▪ PREDICTION: New York 2, Sporting KC 1