The last game Sporting Kansas City played in Vancouver, a little more than a year ago, turned into a nightmarish 3-3 draw.
“I will never forget that game,” Sporting KC goalkeeper and captain Jimmy Nielsen said.
Blowing a three-goal lead in the span of 20 minutes — and nearly losing in the 84th minute — has that sort of lingering effect.
Now, Sporting KC heads to the scene of one of last season’s most heinous crimes a different club altogether.
The coaching staff and personnel remain basically the same, but there’s no doubt Sporting KC has changed after suffering through a spate of late-game collapses last season.
It started with the meltdown against the Whitecaps but didn’t end there.
There were other less-dramatic, last-second collapses as well — at New England, giving up two goals in the final 18 minutes, at Seattle on Jeff Parke’s 93rd-minute goal, versus the Sounders in August on goals in the 90th and 92nd minutes and finally at home to FC Dallas, which scored three times in the last 20 minutes, including twice after the 89th minute.
“Some of those games last year — Vancouver, Dallas, Seattle — those were extremely painful,” Nielsen said. “We spent a lot of time here at the training ground trying to manage the game and control the game even in practice.”
Manager Peter Vermes calls it closing out games. Much like nailing down the final three outs in baseball often proves challenging, those final minutes in soccer can be equally vexing.
They also might have been necessary for a young Sporting KC club.
“We learned from those experiences, and toward the end of last year, it was getting a lot better and we were able to close some games,” midfielder Graham Zusi said. “This year, it’s even better. Our focus level is amazing right now. We’re able to get a goal and then lock it down and not give a team the chance to come back on us.”
Forward Kei Kamara and assorted teammates have killed the clock by rolling the ball to the flag in the attacking zone and milking time.
Sporting KC is also smarter about keeping numbers behind the ball with a lead late in games to avoid any susceptibility to counterattacks.
But the biggest difference might simply be that Sporting KC has been there before and tasted the bitterness of not finishing games.
“Experience helps,” defender Matt Besler said. “We’re one year older. We went through a lot last year, good and bad. That’s big, but I also think it’s confidence. We expect to lock it down every game. Things are going very well right now, and when you play with confidence you usually get the result.”
Proof can be found in Sporting KC’s franchise-record 6-0-0 start, which includes five one-goal victories.
“You can never rest on your laurels, and you have to get continually better with those things,” Vermes said.
Late-game possession is the current point of emphasis, but Sporting KC clearly has grown and matured by leaps and bounds.