The swoon began on the final day of September last season, with only 22 days left on Sporting Kansas City’s schedule. The offense was a primary culprit, accounting for just three goals in six matches. It produced zero in 120 minutes of a playoff game.
And just like that, after spending the bulk of the year occupying a top spot in the conference, Sporting Kansas City’s season was done. The conclusion felt far too reminiscent of the preceding three years — competitive for five or six months, then a lackluster finish without a playoff win.
In 2018, the slump has arrived much earlier.
After sitting atop the Western Conference for more than two months, Sporting KC is winless over its past four matches. The team has dropped to third place in the West, five points shy of first-place FC Dallas.
So, what gives?
“There is not a team that I know of in MLS since 1996, its inaugural season, that has not had to go through what’s happening right now,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said. “Every team goes through it. It depends on how you come out of it. That’s it.
“The reward — or saving grace, if you will — is that we have so many players out that are of high quality that are going to help us when they’re back. And so I would rather that be now than at the end of the season when you’re starting to play for a lot of stuff.”
To be sure, the injuries have played a factor, with midfielder Felipe Gutierrez sidelined three months, and starting defenders Jimmy Medranda, Matt Besler and Ike Opara missing time. Opara, Besler and Medranda remain out Wednesday, when Sporting KC travels to face Houston in the U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals.
All of the above will rejoin the team this season — some of them sooner rather than later — but it will require more than their return to tilt the standings back in Sporting KC’s favor. The team has leaked gaps in its defensive third and made a handful of self-inflicted blunders.
Sporting KC has allowed multiple goals in six straight games after going consecutive nine matches conceding one or fewer.
“Maybe we changed our priorities in the last month in that we have always been good defensively and with possession and now we have been good in the offensive end,” midfielder Ilie Sanchez said. “I think we have to go back to our priorities of what we are doing well. We just have to get back to being ourselves.”
That’s a pivotal component to the equation — there remains time to correct the issue. In 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017, Sporting KC failed to post a winning record in October, carried its slump into the postseason and then flopped once there.
There are 14 matches remaining on the 2018 schedule — nearly half the schedule — in addition to Wednesday’s entry into the Open Cup quarterfinals. That offers ample time to remedy the downturn. But it’s also ample time for it to more notably affect a playoff seed if things don’t change quickly.
“As long as (the slump) doesn’t come again — that’s what you’re hoping towards,” Vermes said. “And that you’re a little stronger or better for what you went through. That’s the key.”