Sporting Kansas City will play in the MLS postseason for the seventh straight year, an accomplishment that has become so regular that the club didn’t even celebrate the feat earlier this month.
On the other hand, it must travel for the knockout round of the playoffs for the fourth straight season — every year since winning the 2013 MLS Cup — and the previous three experiences didn’t go so well.
As Sporting Kansas City prepares for a postseason date with the Houston Dynamo at 8:30 p.m. Thursday, let’s take a look at the reasons for optimism and the reasons for concern.
Why Sporting KC might win the MLS Cup
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If you’re in this camp, your argument is pretty straightforward.
Sporting Kansas City had the best defense in MLS this season, and it wasn’t particularly close. The club allowed only 29 goals, less than one per game and eight fewer than anyone else in the league.
The defense has been particularly stout with captain Matt Besler in the lineup. In the 26 matches he started at center back this year, Sporting KC was 12-6-8. That ain’t bad. Besler will be in the lineup Thursday in Houston.
Because its strength lies on that side of the field, Sporting KC doesn’t often get blown out. It lost only two matches by multiple goals in 2017 and none since May. It’s always going to have a chance late in games. And if any playoff matches should require penalty kicks, well, Sporting KC has some positive results there in its recent history.
Add to that, navigating through the Western Conference isn’t the daunting task it recently was. Sporting KC sat atop the standings or close to it for the majority of the season. It’s plenty capable of doing the same in the playoffs.
The top five point totals were in the Eastern Conference in 2017. The West appears as wide open as ever, so why not the club with the best defense in the league? Why not a team full of veterans who have been through this before?
Why Sporting KC might not win the MLS Cup
Sporting Kansas City’s stumble into the postseason doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. As it turns out, just one victory over the final five matches would’ve been enough to secure a home playoff game. Instead, Sporting finished 0-3-2 and scored only three goals in those five.
How important is momentum heading into the postseason? Pretty critical, usually. Each of the past 10 MLS Cup champions finished with a better points-per-game ratio over their final 10 matches of the season than in their initial 24.
Sporting KC averaged 1.54 points per match over its initial 24 games. That dipped to 1.20 points per match over the final 10.
And then there are the road woes. Sporting KC won only twice away from Children’s Mercy Park this season. It has not won a road match since June 24 against the last-place LA Galaxy.
The problem: Scoring. Sporting Kansas City’s 10 road goals were the second fewest in the league.
The offense struggled to put away chances down the stretch. Striker Diego Rubio is creating and finding opportunities at his best rate of the season, but he’s scored on just one of his past 18 shot attempts.
Lastly, Sporting KC will enter the postseason with a key absence. Goalkeeper Tim Melia will be sidelined Thursday with a hamstring strain he suffered earlier this month. He has returned to partial training, so if the club can make a postseason run, there’s a decent chance he can make a return.
Operative word: If.