On Aug. 23, the hottest day of the summer in Kansas City, Sporting Park welcomed its 49th straight sellout, a crowd of 19,963 energized to watch Sporting Kansas City battle D.C. United for first place in the Eastern Conference.
Over the previous five months, Sporting KC had successfully weathered the storm of early-season injuries. They had found a way to remain in the hunt for the Eastern Conference crown despite a six-week stretch without captain Matt Besler and fellow U.S. national team member Graham Zusi.
A date with D.C. United provided an opportunity for the team to illustrate its expectation to make a late-season surge for the top seed in the conference.
Instead, D.C. United stole the leading role in that story. The United dismantled Sporting KC in a 3-0 win, took over first place and never looked back.
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It was the beginning of the end for Sporting Kansas City.
The club lost seven of its final 10 games. Two months after the match to determine first place, Sporting KC found itself in the Eastern Conference knockout game, where it was eliminated last Thursday with a 2-1 loss in New York.
“It just kind of snowballed for us a little bit. The confidence wasn’t there,” Zusi said. “I think our team, as a whole, started making little mistakes late in the season that we usually don’t make, and we got punished for it.”
Three days after watching their season come to an abrupt end at Red Bull Arena, the players returned to the Swope Park training center to clear out their lockers. A day later, they said their goodbyes — some temporary and some permanent — before departing their separate ways.
And that left some wondering exactly where everything went wrong. How did the defending MLS champions fade so quickly from contention?
The sale of defensive midfielder Oriol Rosell was heavily scrutinized when the team failed to find a like-for-like replacement. The myriad of injuries that plagued Sporting KC were well-documented. Among the projected 11 starters for Sporting KC, only one (Dom Dwyer) didn’t miss time with an injury or international absence.
But those were issues the team overcame for five months. It didn’t for the final two.
“To be honest with you, I think we ran out of gas,” Besler said. “I’m definitely not one to analyze seasons as a whole, but you’re right — looking back, we were right in it. We had battled all year, and we had faced a lot of adversity, and we were right there in August.”
The final game of the season — the 2-1 loss to New York — provided something of a microcosm for the season.
Sporting KC led 1-0 in the second half after a goal from Dwyer, and it looked as if it was prepared to steal a road victory. Those hopes slowly faded over the final 10 minutes, when MLS leading scorer Bradley Wright-Phillips scored twice, flipping the result.
A fitting end for a season that once looked so promising.
“We’re obviously disappointed with how we ended everything,” Dwyer said. “But it wasn’t a disastrous season. We’re not a bad team. As a whole, you look back in the season to August, and we’re the best team in the league. We can still be that same team.”
But will they be the same team come January? Unlikely.
While technical director Peter Vermes opted for limited roster turnover after Sporting KC won the 2013 MLS Cup, it could play out very differently this offseason.
There will be free-agent contracts to resolve — most notably for defender Aurelien Collin — but the arrival of two expansion teams will force more amendments to the roster. New York City FC and Orlando City SC will join the league next season, and MLS will conduct an expansion draft for the two teams on Dec. 10.
Sporting KC will be allowed to protect up to 11 players on its current roster from being selected in the expansion draft. Homegrown players are automatically protected. But with a deep roster, it’s virtually inevitable Sporting KC will lose at least one player in the draft.
Chance Myers said Sunday he hopes to return for training camp after a left Achilles injury ended his season in May. The club also hopes defender Ike Opara will be ready for for the start of 2015.
Asked how different the 2015 roster will look, Vermes said, “I’d be in a different business if I could predict what it looks like come the end of January. I just can’t tell you. There’s a lot of different things that will happen over the course of the offseason.”
The offseason should be much more relaxed for the returning players — especially Zusi and Besler. After winning the MLS championship on Dec. 7, the two enjoyed only a monthlong break before joining the U.S. national team for its January camp.
“I think I’d be lying if I didn’t say my body is a little tired right now,” Zusi said. “This was the most soccer I’ve ever played in a calendar year. I think I’ve learned from it, and I’m going to use this offseason to better prepare my body for hopefully the same amount of soccer next year.”
The hope, of course, is that while next year’s schedule won’t include the same number of competitions — no World Cup or CONCACAF Champions League knockout stage — it will still last deep into the winter. As it did in 2013.
“The phrase I’ve been using with the guys is that losing is sometimes the best motivation. Sometimes it lights a fire under you,” Besler said. “I think a lot of good will come from this season. I think the team really learned a lot about ourselves. I fully expect us to come back with a big, big chip on our shoulder.”