Sporting KC

Two reasons Sporting KC can still make the playoffs ... and two that remain a worry

Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes: ‘We realize what’s in front of us’

Sporting KC produced its first home clean sheet in four months, good for a 1-0 victory against the Chicago Fire at Children’s Mercy Park.
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Sporting KC produced its first home clean sheet in four months, good for a 1-0 victory against the Chicago Fire at Children’s Mercy Park.

The longest playoff streak in Sporting Kansas City history is danger of extinction like never before since its inception. The eight-year run would require a late-season revival to extend another year.

In that sense, Sunday served as a start. On paper, Sporting KC earned its most difficult win of the season, a 3-2 victory at CenturyLink Field in Seattle, a venue in which the Sounders had previously lost just once in 2019.

A tease? Or a sign of things to come?

As Sporting KC prepares for a Saturday home date with Real Salt Lake, let’s take a look at a couple of arguments for each side.

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Why Sporting KC can make a late-season run for a playoff spot

1. They became a tough team to play against once more.

It’s been a staple of the playoff streak — Major League Soccer opponents haven’t much enjoyed matching up with Peter Vermes-led teams. They’re tough-minded; they wear you down physically; they run you to the point of exhaustion.

Where has that been in 2019?

On Sunday, at long last, they returned to the pillars. Pace. Physical play. The team committed more fouls than in any game since Aug. 10, 2014.

Nearly five years. Think Seattle enjoyed that experience? Forward Erik Hurtado was relentless — even before he scored. The return of Roger Espinoza should provide more of the same.

“I don’t think we were necessarily that hard to play against in the middle part of the season,” Vermes said. “The guys are realizing we’re going to have to be if we’re going to try to make any move.”

2. Sporting displayed a mentality Sunday that’s been absent for much of the season — and one that’s a necessity over the final two months.

Two days after Vermes critiqued his team’s mental strength as “inconsistent,” it showed examples of fortitude.

Twice.

In two instances in the second half, Seattle cut a two-goal deficit to just one, but each time Sporting prevented it from snowballing. It actually responded with some of its best play.

“There’s obviously been a lot of mistakes this year that are uncharacteristic of us, and more often than not, we’ve been punished for them,” winger Johnny Russell said. “The mentality we had last year is that if we give one up, we’re going to come back — we showed it time and time again. We haven’t been able to do it as often as we’d like this year, but I think the game against Seattle was a massive step for the guys.”

The hurdles that remain in the way

1. The easy goals.

Sometimes you have to tip your cap to a play made. Others? You blame yourself. Even in the crucial win against Seattle, Sporting KC inexplicably gave up the ball in the back end, made a wrong step, and saw Jordan Morris pull the Sounders back in the game late in the second half.

Can’t happen.

Sporting has allowed 41 goals this season with 11 games still left on the slate. Only once during the eight-year playoff run has Sporting allowed more over the entire 34-game MLS schedule — when it allowed 45 in 2015, a number that will surely be surpassed.

Since trading Ike Opara in the offseason, Sporting KC has been unable to find a consistent pairing with Matt Besler. The rotation has returned to the original plan, with Andreu Fontas. Simply put: A march to the playoffs needs him to be at his best.

2. The math.

It’s going to take a red-hot two months. The schedule sets up nicely to gather some momentum, with four of the next five games at Children’s Mercy Park. But the team hasn’t exactly been good protecting its home field this year.

The math suggests the seventh and final playoff spot in the Western Conference will require somewhere in the neighborhood of 47 points. For Sporting KC to reach that number, it needs to generate 19 points over its final 11 games, an average of 1.72 points per game. Only one team in all of MLS has played at that rate this season: LAFC.

“We know we’re running out of time. Games are running out,” Russell said. “We know we’re going to have to win the majority of the games we’ve got left. It’s a mystery why we haven’t been ourselves this season, but everyone should take belief from last week for what we’re capable of doing over the last (two months).”

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If you already subscribe to The Star, thanks for your support. If not, our digital sports-only subscription is just $30 per year. It's your ticket to everything sports in Kansas City ... and beyond, and supports our award-winning coverage.

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