After the frustration had settled on the controversial playoff elimination more than 11 months ago, Sporting Kansas City ultimately looked inward. Beyond the perceived referee mistakes that swung the outcome. On the “controllables,” as one player put it.
What could Sporting KC have done to prevent the third straight early postseason exit? The question landed a specific answer.
“What we learned,” captain Matt Besler said last winter, “is that we have to play at home in the playoffs.”
Some 33 MLS matches later, that remains the goal. And it remains in limbo.
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Sporting Kansas City travels to Real Salt Lake for a 3 p.m. match Sunday in the regular-season finale. Entering “Decision Day,” as MLS dubs it, Sporting KC can still place anywhere from second to fifth in the Western Conference standings. The top-four spots earn at least one home playoff match. The fifth is on the road.
“We want that home crowd in the playoffs,” midfielder Roger Espinoza said. “You’ve seen the way we play in elimination games at home. We want those games in our stadium.”
The statistic has been repeated often, certainly in this publication: Sporting KC has not hosted a playoff match since 2013, the night it won the MLS Cup.
In the three ensuing seasons, it has traveled on the road for a one-game knockout round of the playoffs. (Only the top two seeds are awarded byes to bypass the knockout round.) Sporting KC has lost each of those three.
But the home and road playoff splits predate the knockout casualties. Since the start of 2012, Sporting KC is winless in six postseason road matches. It is unbeaten in four home playoff matches across the same time frame. In other words, the fate of their most recent 10 playoff games have been determined by the venue.
That would place a wealth of importance on Sunday, when Sporting KC needs either a victory at Real Salt Lake or a Houston loss to avoid playing on the road in next week’s opening round. A draw offers the club no benefit.
For both teams, actually. Real Salt Lake is still batting for a playoff spot, and it needs a victory to significantly improve its chances of securing one. While a draw wouldn’t technically eliminate RSL from contention, it would come close.
Sporting is in. But if history is an indication, its ability to navigate the playoffs will hinder on Sunday’s result.
“I’m not trying to be flippant, but we’re in the playoffs, so everything else is icing,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said. “We know they have to get three points. From that point of view, there’s not much pressure on us. It’s a unique situation. It’s going to take on the atmosphere of a playoff game, which is a great thing, because that’s what we’re trying to get ready for.”