For nearly a month this summer, Sporting Kansas City occupied the top spot in the West. Heck, only 22 days ago, it welcomed Vancouver to Children’s Mercy Park, a setting in which it had not yet lost, with first place on the line.
But after the grind of the final few weeks took their toll once again, Sporting KC concluded the regular season in a familiar spot.
With a road playoff match on the horizon.
Sporting KC fell 2-1 to Real Salt Lake in Sunday afternoon’s regular season finale in Sandy, Utah, failing to secure its first home playoff match in four years.
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The performance was as lackluster as it was consequential. It sends Sporting KC traveling to Houston in the knockout round of the playoffs at 8:30 p.m. Thursday.
“If you play like that, you’ll be out in the first round of the playoffs,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said in a phone interview after Sunday’s match. “Simple as can be. That’s not what we do regularly. Our game is always making sure we have the effort. Today, we got beat by everything.”
The aftermath placed Sporting KC as the fifth seed in the West. Houston is No. 4 after defeating Chicago on Sunday.
It’s the fourth straight year that Sporting KC will play on the road in the opening round of the playoffs. The club was winless over the previous three.
For much of 2017, Sporting KC sat in a better position in the West. On Sunday, it still could have guaranteed itself a home playoff game with a victory.
Instead, the finality of the descent in the standings arrived, and its consequences will ring in the form of Sporting Kansas City’s playoff destination.
It commenced weeks earlier. While playing for first place against Vancouver on Sept. 30, Sporting KC lost at home for the first time in 2017, the makings of a five-game winless streak to close out the year. It totaled only two points over those five matches. It scored just three goals, including defender Ike Opara’s tally in the final minutes Sunday to cut a two-goal deficit in half.
Too little. Too late.
“If you don’t come off this game as a player thinking that was embarrassing in the way we went about our business … then I don’t know what you’re doing,” Vermes said. “We had a chance to push ourselves up the standings and get home-field advantage and all that. And you come out and play like that — that’s an embarrassing performance.”
The franchise history suggests the home-field advantage is a key element to the postseason. The results of the club’s previous 10 playoff matches have been determined by the venue — it has not lost at home nor won away from it.
On Sunday, in need of either a victory or a Houston loss to secure a home match, both items fell out of favor quickly. Only 150 seconds after every MLS game started with a simultaneous opening whistle, Houston was already on the board against Chicago, and Real Salt Lake had grabbed the lead against visiting Sporting KC.
Luis Silva was the goal scorer for Real Salt Lake, cleaning up a mess in front of the goal that had Sporting KC out of position. A similar sequence allowed Real Salt Lake midfielder Brooks Lennon to pounce for a two-goal advantage before halftime.
So it went.
It sets up another date with Houston. Sporting KC is 0-1-1 against Houston in MLS play this season, with both results coming in the last two weeks. Sporting KC won an U.S. Open Cup match in Houston in June.