For Sporting Kansas City and its fans, all eyes will be on Toyota Park in Chicago at 8 p.m. tonight, where the Fire host the Houston Dynamo in the Eastern Conference knockout round of the MLS playoffs.
The winner advances to face two-time reigning champion Sporting KC in the conference semifinals, which begin at 2:30 p.m. Sunday in either Chicago or Houston for manager Peter Vermes’ crew.
“As much as we know these teams, the intensity of the game is going to be heightened just because we know it’s the knockout round now,” Vermes said. “We’ll be really tuned to the TV.”
Oddly, top-seeded Sporting KC, 18-7-9, actually had a better record this season against the second and third seeds, D.C. United and the New York Red Bulls, than either team in the knockout round.
Sporting KC beat swept second-seeded D.C. in two meetings without allowing a goal and went 1-0-2 against the Red Bulls, including a 2-0 beating administered Sept. 19 — the first home loss for New York at Red Bull Arena this season.
Meanwhile, Sporting KC went 0-1-2 against the Dynamo, who bounced Vermes’ squad from the playoffs last season, and finished the year 1-2-0 against Frank Klopas’ fourth-seeded Fire.
Of course, in losses at Houston and Chicago, red cards issued against Sporting KC factored heavily in the outcome — though none of that will really matter come Sunday.
“Those games are past and it’s all about us getting ready for this game, getting healthy bodies and really just being focused,” said forward Kei Kamara, who led MLS with career-high 134 shots this season and also set high-water marks for goals (11) and assists (eight). “We’ve been there before. We were here last year, and we’ve just got to make sure we change the history this time.”
As far as Sporting KC is concerned, it doesn’t matter if it’s the Fire, 17-11-6, or Dynamo, 14-9-11, that emerges from the one-game wild card matchup.
“I have no preference, and I don’t think anybody really does,” said midfielder Graham Zusi, who led the MLS with 15 assists during the regular season. “We’re more worried about our game than anything. It’s been a good week of preparation for us, and we’re just looking forward to Sunday.”
That’s not to suggest that Sporting KC has forgotten last season’s Eastern Conference final, a gut-wrenching 2-0 loss to Houston at Livestrong Sporting Park.
“We have something to prove against Houston from last year,” said defender Aurelien Collin, a key cog for a defense that has allowed six fewer goals than any other team in MLS (27). “We’d be happy to play against them to prove to them that last year was an accident, but we’ll be prepared for any team. We don’t care. We physically and mentally are ready for any team in the league.”
The game plan will adjust obviously, depending on who emerges tonight to meet Sporting KC in the semifinals, but nothing else.
“Whoever it’s going to be, it’s an even slate,” Kamara said. “We play at their place; they play at our place.”
With 10 days between a 2-1 win to close the regular season last week against Philadelphia and the playoff opener, Sporting KC spent the early part of the week alternately resting and trying to stay sharp.
Sporting KC insists that the long layoff won’t be a problem and, if anything, provides the chance to get healthy.
Besides, with several breaks for World Cup qualifying, including a lengthy hiatus in September and October, it’s not the first time Sporting KC has faced the challenge of staying sharp without a game.
“We’re doing what we’ve been doing all year, having intense practices,” Besler said. “The coaching staff has been doing a good job keeping everyone sharp, and we’re staying hungry really. … I’d rather have a layoff than play the Wednesday game, for sure.”
Now, it’s MLS Cup or bust, right?
“We’ve had a very good year,” Vermes said. “To already have won the U.S. Open Cup and then to repeat as Eastern Conference divisional champs at the end of the season is huge for us. As I said, I really believe it’s a standard of excellence that the guys have set, but there’s more to come and more to go after.”