The count stood at 1,419 days, and while nobody in the Sporting Kansas City organization might have tallied that figure exactly, the significance of it reached them all. That’s 1,419 days since the club lifted the MLS Cup on a frigid December day in Kansas City, Kan. That’s 1,419 days since it last celebrated an MLS playoff victory.
The tally will stretch into yet another long, agonizing offseason.
Sporting Kansas City lost in the opening round of the playoffs for the fourth straight year, a 1-0 overtime loss Thursday to the Houston Dynamo at BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston.
Twenty-six days after playing a match with first place on the line, Sporting KC is one-and-done in the postseason.
“It stings from that point of view because we were in a very good position with four or five games left in the season,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said in a phone interview after the match. “But sometimes that’s just the way it goes.”
If this all sounds familiar, like a story told many times before, well, it should. Sporting KC has lost four straight knockout-round matches — every postseason game it’s played since winning the 2013 MLS Cup — and all of them are by either one-goal margins or via penalty kicks.
Each one possesses its own distinct element of anguish. On Thursday, that arrived in the 77th minute, when Ike Opara appeared to give Sporting KC a one-goal lead before a late whistle correctly ruled him offside.
So it went. The best defense in the MLS — Sporting KC allowed eight fewer goals than any other team in the league — played like it. But a young front line that struggled down the stretch of the season exhibited those same characteristics.
Houston’s Alberth Elis finally broke through in the 94th minute, four minutes into the initial half of overtime, after Vicente Sanchez rolled through the left side of Sporting KC’s back line. A rare mistake.
The larger blunder — the one this club will ultimately look back on — came over the final few weeks of the regular season. A free fall dispatched Sporting KC to the road for the knockout round. After playing for first place on Sept. 30, Sporting KC finished fifth in the West.
A critical descent. After Thursday, the results of the last 11 playoff matches in franchise history have been determined by the venue. The club has neither won on the road nor lost at home in the playoffs since 2012.
“I don’t think we were out of form tonight. I think we just weren’t getting the results the last four games, and that made it a much bigger uphill climb for us (in the playoffs),” Vermes said. “And then you lost a little confidence at that point. You’re trying to get it back.”
Sporting KC qualified for the playoffs a seventh straight year. It won its third U.S. Open Cup in the past six seasons.
But the way it ended Thursday — without a goal — will return the offseason conversation to the club’s biggest in-season move. Sporting KC traded striker Dom Dwyer, the second leading scorer in franchise history, to Orlando City SC in July, and it failed in its attempt to bring in forward Krisztian Nemeth days later as a potential replacement. Nemeth instead landed in New England.
A young Sporting KC offense handled the load well in the initial aftermath, but a front line lacking veteran experience slumped down the stretch. The club scored only three goals over the final five matches of the regular season.
By no coincidence, the drought coincided with the drop in the Western Conference standings. Thus, to the road it went for the opening round.
There, the playoff game took on a dry tone, with only one shot on target for each side in the opening 45 minutes. The one from Sporting KC was a good one. The best chance of the scoreless regulation fell to Sporting KC winger Gerso Fernandes down the left flank. Evident in the night’s game plan, Fernandes outran the Houston defense and got the ball to his dominant left foot. His ensuing shot clipped the bicep of goalkeeper Tyler Deric.
But Fernandes pulled up lame late in the first half, and after starting the second half, he lasted only four minutes before waving for a substitute. Daniel Salloi entered the match. Sporting KC was also playing without defender Seth Sinovic (back) and goalkeeper Tim Melia (hamstring).
“We gave everything we had,” Vermes said. “We left everything on the field — mental, physical, technical, tactical. I mean we put it all out there.
“I think we played really hard. We were intense, concentrated, everything. I think we did everything we could other than win the game.”
Sporting Kansas City 0, OT
KANSAS CITY: Andrew Dykstra; Graham Zusi, Ike Opara, Matt Besler, Jimmy Medranda; Roger Espinoza (Saad Abdul-Salaam, 114th), Ilie Sanchez, Benny Feilhaber (Kevin Oliveira, 101st); Gerso Fernandes (Daniel Salloi, 51st), Diego Rubio, Larif Blessing (Cristian Lobato, 100th).
HOUSTON: Tyler Deric; Adolfo Machado, Philippe Senderos, Leonardo (Jalil Anibaba, 41st), DaMarcus Beasley; Ricardo Clark (Vicente Sanchez, 87th), Juan Cabezas, Alberth Elis, Tomas Martinez, Alex (Eric Alexander, 90th); Erick Torres (Romell Quioto, 73rd).
Kansas City: None.
Houston: 1, Elis 11 (Sanchez), 94th minute.
Shots on goal
Kansas City: Zusi (unsporting behavior), 47th; Sanchez (unsporting behavior), 53rd; Espinoza (unsporting behavior), 65th; Rubio (unsporting behavior), 89th; Dykstra (unsporting behavior), 123rd.
Houston: Senderos (unsporting behavior), 14th; Clark (not retreating), 21st; Machado (unsporting behavior), 76th; Quioto (time wasting), 109th; Elis (unsporting behavior), 121st.
Referee: Mark Geiger.
Assistant referee: Joe Fletcher.
Assistant referee: Mike Rottersman.
Fourth official: Hilario Grajeda.