The superlatives appear in a cyclical and even predictable fashion. In the aftermath of Sporting Kansas City home matches, an opposing coach is quizzed about the Children’s Mercy Park environment. The reply unveils universal praise, with perhaps some recency bias.
There are those who call the venue one of the most intimidating atmospheres in Major League Soccer. There are others who simply compliment the stadium’s aesthetics. And then there is Bruce Arena, the former elder statesman in the league, who referred to it as the model for future franchises.
Which leaves this fact as all the more noteworthy: For three straight winters, Children’s Mercy Park has sat as an idle, empty venue. For all of the admiration poured into the stadium and its fan base, Sporting KC has been unable to return a home playoff game to Children’s Mercy Park since it lifted the MLS Cup in December 2013.
“It’s a shame we haven’t been able to play in front of these fans the last three years in the playoffs,” midfielder Benny Feilhaber said. “I think this year, the players, the staff, the front office, we’ve all had that goal. The players that we’ve brought in, the type of team we’ve built, it’s for that goal. We feel very strongly about that being one of our goals — to get a home game here during the playoffs.”
The objective was outwardly stated in 2016, too, even by Sporting Club CEO Robb Heineman. The sentiment was simple. “It’s a stadium that deserves big matches,” Heineman said.
But for three years, it has settled for MLS regular season, U.S. Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions League games.
Sporting KC plays host to FC Dallas at 8 p.m. Saturday in its home opener. It played D.C. United to a scoreless draw to open the regular season last weekend.
“It’s such a great atmosphere — we miss it, too,” defender Ike Opara said. “If you look at the past few seasons, we’ve just been a point or two off. We’ve dropped some really hard games that caused us to go on the road the last three years.”
Indeed, while much has been analyzed about the way Sporting KC bowed out of the 2014, 2015 and 2016 postseasons — each of them in heart-wrenching fashion for different reasons— a couple of tweaks to the regular-season results would have allowed Sporting KC to avoid those situations altogether.
In 2016, Sporting KC was one point shy of hosting the first-round matchup with Seattle. A month earlier, it twice blew late leads at home, turning wins into draws, each instance costing the club two points.
The story was the same in 2015 and 2014 — one more regular-season point would have given Sporting KC a first-round home game. Instead, it has settled for knockout-round road trips, which have prevented — or at least impeded — deep playoff runs.
The primary emphasis, therefore, is improving the results in the 34-game season.
“If you look at the (playoff) games that occurred, we’ve been toe-to-toe with those teams, if not better, in those games,” Opara said. “I think that if we were at home, we would’ve had that advantage, and I think we would’ve moved forward in at least one of those games.”