Sporting KC

Late game-winner keeps Sporting KC alive in playoff push

Peter Vermes walked into the halftime locker room on Saturday, Sporting Kansas City trailing by a goal, and its playoff streak stretched to its final strand. Eighteen players sat in front of their respective cutouts by the time he arrived, almost in mid-sentence as he turned the corner.

“We’re not losing this game,” he said. “We’re not losing this game.”

In a fight to preserve its playoff hopes, Sporting KC might have bought a little extra time.

Sporting KC responded with perhaps its most encouraging half of the season, the impetus for a 2-1 comeback victory Saturday against San Jose at Children’s Mercy Park.

With an unlikely culprit. Defender Graham Smith tapped in the game-winner in the 76th minute — his first career goal — after midfielder Benny Feilhaber had scored earlier in the half, his first goal since a midseason trade returned him to Kansas City.

“The pride took over,” Feilhaber said.

If Sporting is going to make a run — if its eight-year playoff streak will become nine — it will require a move during this three-game homestand.

One down, two to go.

And even so, an uphill climb remains on the other side. Sporting (8-11-7) moved within six points of seventh place in the Western Conference, a final playoff spot with shared occupancy between Portland and FC Dallas. Sporting KC will play eight more regular-season games. Portland has a heavy slate of home games left.

On Friday afternoon, Sporting confronted the obvious. A franchise accustomed to turning Octobers into postseason appearances faces tall odds.

Ignore the standings, Vermes said. Embrace the final nine games as opportunity.

“Regardless of whether we make the playoffs or we don’t make the playoffs or we win or lose every game, we want to make sure we show ourselves well for these fans and everyone that’s been part of this organization since it was basically nothing,” Feilhaber said. “That’s the kind of mentality we had the entire game. The first half was ugly, but we were still fighting, and the second half things started to click a little better. The fight was there.”

San Jose secured a 1-0 halftime lead Saturday before Feilhaber leveled in the 50th minute and Smith delivered the game-winner in the 76th. Feilhaber used his left foot for just the third time in his career, amazing even himself as he watched the highlights back on his iPhone after the game. “I don’t know how I did that,” he said.

By contrast, the game-winner fell in Smith’s lap. Johnny Russell unleashed a free kick from the corner of the penalty area that struck the post and forced San Jose keeper Daniel Vega to dive. The rebound off the woodwork fell to Smith, with the goal wide open.

“If I can’t finish that, I probably shouldn’t be on the field,” Smith said.

It felt deserving after the urgency in which Sporting KC embraced following a halftime deficit — which was its own doing. It left Chris Wondolowski, the league’s leading goal scorer of all-time, unmarked on the opening goal. San Jose attempted 15 shots in the first half, the most any opponent as attempted in one half inside Children’s Mercy Park in the Opta stats era (2010-present).

After the halftime speech, a more purposeful second half followed.

Time will tell if it kept Sporting KC’s season alive.

“Incredible commitment by our players, which are capable of doing it, and they can do it game in and game out,” Vermes said. “This was a big step for the guys. ... They showed some signs of who we really are, and now we’ve got to build off it.”

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