The trip to Sporting Park lasted less than an hour for Sporting Kansas City on Thursday afternoon, just long enough to celebrate the latest U.S. Open Cup championship with a few hundred fans. The players were introduced individually in front of the crowd before coach Peter Vermes grabbed the microphone.
He offered his appreciation for the fans and for the players.
And then he moved on.
“We have a lot of season left still,” he said, later adding, “We would like to make sure we get into the playoffs and more importantly win MLS Cup.”
Only three days after winning a trophy, the return to MLS play represents an important match in the Western Conference playoff race.
In actuality, Vermes said he enjoyed the Open Cup title for about four hours before diverting his attention to a match Saturday in Portland — and his players quickly followed suit. Sporting KC will face the Timbers at 9:30 p.m.
The Open Cup “was our first goal. This was the first one out of the way,” defender Matt Besler said. “We have to get ready for Portland on Saturday and try to make a run at the end of the season.”
It’s a return to a different reality. While the club added its third championship in four seasons to the collection Wednesday, that doesn’t negate a recent skid in MLS play. Sporting KC has still won only once over its last eight league matches, falling into the thick of a battle to reach the playoffs in a daunting conference.
The top six teams from each conference will qualify for the postseason. Sporting KC sits in fifth place in the West, one point ahead of Portland and only two points better than San Jose, the first team out of the playoffs.
On the flip side, Sporting KC is still within reach of earning one of the two byes from the West. It trails second-place Vancouver by only three points — the total it can garner Saturday with a victory.
Asked if winning one trophy relieves the pressure to win another, Besler replied, “I don’t think so. I think we have to have the mentality that we have to go forward. We have to attack where we are in the standings right now, because we know there’s a lot of teams around us. I think what we can’t do is look behind (us) and try to protect where (we) are. You have to go attack the people ahead of you.”
That’s easier said than done, of course, especially after Wednesday’s Open Cup final lasted 120 minutes before reaching penalty kicks — and it was a high-energy match, at that.
In other words, Sporting KC will undoubtedly battle tired legs Saturday, along with a few absences. Defensive midfielder Soni Mustivar picked up a hip pointer injury in the final and will likely sit against Portland. Midfielder Paulo Nagamura is out due to yellow card accumulation.
“We have to regroup,” Vermes said. “We’ll try to put out a group on the field that has some energy and at the same time is going to help us get a result.”