As Sporting Kansas City players walked through Children’s Mercy Park after a recent playoff victory, a couple of the newcomers approached captain Matt Besler. They spoke of the intensity within the match, their nerves over the final half hour and the incessant crowd noise.
“Welcome to the playoffs,” Besler responded in a matter-of-fact manner.
During its first postseason series in five years, Sporting KC encountered a bit of everything. A deficit in the first leg. A two-goal lead in the second leg. A defend-for-your-lives half hour to conclude the series.
It totaled a spot in the Western Conference Finals against Portland. The first leg opens Sunday in Portland, with the return leg in Kansas City four days later.
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A blowout against Real Salt Lake in the semifinals would have offered momentum heading into Portland. With a batch of players who had not yet participated in a playoff match, Sporting KC believes the tense victory offered something more valuable as the playoff field narrows.
“Ideally we’re not in that situation where one goal can change the entire series,” Besler said. “That’s something that hopefully we can learn from. It’s a great experience for this group going forward. We have another home-and-away series now. We can take a lot out of what we just went through. I think it wasn’t perfect. There (are) areas we can improve on. But we did enough to move on. I think we just keep rolling and keep improving.”
Added Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes: “That’s how playoff games go. Whenever you come out on the right side of a game like that, especially the way we did, I think it does nothing but help.”
Here’s the thing: Portland’s advancement required similar theatrics in Seattle, plus penalty kicks, to boot. So if Sporting KC is looking for some sort of advantage, it will have to look elsewhere.
Might it start with possession? Stylistically, Sporting KC and Portland have arrived in the Western Conference Finals with contrasting approaches. Sporting KC ranks second in MLS in possession. Portland is 20th.
A playoff match can absorb a different life than regular season games, to be sure, but overhauling a system is unlikely. Sporting KC will try to play with the ball, even with striker Diego Rubio serving a one-game suspension for yellow-card accumulation, likely placing Khiry Shelton back in the lineup. Portland will be content to wait for the counter.
“I think it’s really hard for teams at this time of year to go away from who they are,” Vermes said. “You can have a day where some different things click. But I think it’s hard to go away from who you are.”
The counter attacks buried Sporting KC for spells in 2015-16, but the club has made a point to solve those woes over the past two seasons. It put in considerable time on positional allocation, fancy terminology for intelligent thinking in the way it spreads the field, ensuring it is prepared for a counter.
And Sporting KC has been particularly aware of Portland’s preferences. It has lost just once against Portland in their last 10 regular-season meetings. Add to that, it’s recorded eight shutouts in those 10 matchups. Portland did not score in two meetings this season.
An edge? Perhaps.
And then again ...
“History doesn’t mean anything,” Vermes said. “Not anymore. There’s way more to a playoff game. It has different consequences, different effects. It’s just a different game.”
The statistics make Sporting KC a slight favorite in the two-game aggregate series, and for what it’s worth, so do the Vegas oddsmakers. Sporting, which garnered eight more points than Portland from its regular-season schedule, ranked in the top four in both goals scored and fewest goals allowed. Portland was 11th and eighth on those lists, respectively. Sporting was first in shots, second in possession and second in passing. Portland was 11th, 20th and 16th.
“When you get to this point in the year, some of that stuff gets thrown out the window a little bit,” Vermes said. “Every game has the feel of a final. You’re just trying to capitalize on their mistakes and minimize your own. I’m sure they’re thinking the same way.”