At the moment, Sporting Kansas City controls its own fate in the race for the MLS Eastern Conference championship.
The catbird’s seat is the best place to be, of course, in a tight race with six teams separated by only nine points, even if it is by the slimmest of margins – one point ahead of the surging Chicago Fire and two in front of the filthy-rich New York Red Bulls.
“It’s fun playing big games,” left back Seth Sinovic said. “We know the stakes are high, but we’re looking forward to it.”
While it’s hard to imagine Sporting KC, 15-7-6, faltering enough to fall out of playoff contention, a second straight conference crown – and the first conference title repeat in club history – is much less assured.
“I find it extremely exciting right now,” goalkeeper and captain Jimmy Nielsen said. “A lot of teams are fighting for some tight spots in the division. Everything’s very close, so it’s a very important moment of the season. There’s no time for a sloppy performance now.”
Still, it’s going to take one heck of a finishing kick for Sporting KC to fend off the pack.
Sitting on an Eastern Conference-best 51 points with six games to go, Sporting KC has the toughest remaining schedule among the six Eastern Conference contenders, including two road matchups against goal-scoring machine Thierry Henry and the Red Bulls, 14-7-7.
The first comes at 6 p.m. tonight at Red Bull Arena.
Without at least a draw, Sporting KC will no longer control its own destiny as New York, which is 10-0-3 at home this season, is poised to leap frog manager Peter Vermes’ squad with a victory.
“New York is a tough place to play and that’s a very good team that’s playing very well, but we are confident,” midfielder Paulo Nagamura said. “We know we’ve been very good on the road, so we’re definitely going to New York looking to get some points.”
In other words, Sporting KC is doing its best to treat tonight’s showdown as merely another game – one of 34 that ultimately will decide their Eastern Conference fate.
“I don’t think anything has changed at the moment,” Vermes said. “We have games we have to play and we have to get results, but that hasn’t changed since the beginning of the season. We’re going to continue on the same way we’ve approached everything else. The mentality of the team is good, and I feel like we’re playing well.”
Sporting KC’s defense is understandably leery of Henry’s speed, especially when there’s not enough pressure on defenders or through the midfield.
But Nielsen also cautioned about worrying too much about Henry on a roster that also includes Kenny Cooper, Tim Cahill and Sebastien Le Toux.
In fact, he isn’t going to get hung up on the stars dotting the Red Bulls’ roster at all.
“They have some very big names on the payroll, but we have to look at the entire team,” Nielsen said. “We respect them, but we don’t fear them. It’s not so much about the names. If Philadelphia were in New York’s position, I would find the game just as attractive. It’s an exciting game, because it’s two teams in very good position in the division.”
Still, it’s only one game.
“Everything won be won on (tonight’s) game, and everything won’t be lost,” Vermes said. “You’ve got to know that as a player. That opportunity is on all the games going forward and not just the next one.”