The hours after an opening-night flop would prove revealing. In the post-game locker room on March 4, Sporting Kansas City captain Matt Besler put it rather succinctly: “That wasn’t us. That’s not who we’re going to be.”
Six weeks later, Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes recalls a predictably somber mood, a group of players dejected by a shutout home loss to New York City FC in which they were considerably outplayed. But with an eight-month season, the disappointment of an opener can uproot one of two feelings.
Panic. Or motivation.
Two days later, when Sporting KC reassembled for its first practice after the loss, it quickly became clear which would apply.
“That next week, we got after it,” Vermes said. “The antennas were really high, because everybody realized that we gotta get going.”
There are a few games every season that Vermes highlights as challenge matches, for one reason or another. Take last weekend’s game against the LA Galaxy as an example — a road match against an opponent coming off an emotional victory in front of a charged atmosphere on national TV.
The opener was another. Sporting Kansas City had been eager to find out how its new-look lineup measured against one of the league’s best teams, how a handful of offseason acquisitions would adapt to Major League Soccer.
A 2-0 loss made it abundantly clear: There's still work to be done.
“As good as (New York City was) and as in form as they were already, for that to be an early game in the season for us, it already makes you understand that the standard in the league is really high,” Vermes said. “So you have to make that jump right away if you want to compete. So it sets the tone for all these guys, knowing that’s where the level of the league is going to be."
The response has been telling. Sporting KC is unbeaten over the ensuing five matches. It sits alone atop the Western Conference standings entering Sunday’s match against Seattle (3 p.m., ESPN).
“Ever since that game against New York, we’ve been a different team,” midfielder Roger Espinoza said. “We stayed positive. We stuck as a team. What I can say is I’m very happy it showed our character at the end of the day. You’re not always tested in that way. We were tested.”
The offense was put into question after the season-opening loss to New York City. Six weeks later, nobody in the West has scored more goals than Sporting Kansas City’s 12. Sporting KC also enters Sunday with a 262-minute scoreless streak.
The credit, or at least part of it, stems from the displeasure of the initial outing.
“I think looking back — and I actually thought this at the time even — that it was the best thing for us,” Vermes said. “When you’re able to see right away what the standard is gonna be, you’re able to do some things to try to match it. And that’s what we’ve done.”