After 94 hard-fought minutes at Portland’s Providence Park, it was a scene of despair as Brian Fernandez sprinted toward Diego Valeri on the edge of Sporting Kansas City’s box.
Jimmy Medranda looked on, the disappointment so etched on his face it could be seen on TV. Matt Besler and Graham Smith couldn’t watch the celebrations, bent over staring at the turf. Tim Melia could only sit inside his own goal, helpless as his side’s defensive efforts came undone in stoppage time.
Another loss for Kansas City, 2-1 against the Timbers, and another tick toward midnight on the club’s doomsday playoff clock.
It’s been nine years in the making, but Sporting Kansas City is on the verge of being eliminated from playoff contention. With five games remaining, Kansas City sits five points outside of the final playoff spot. Not all hope is lost, no, but there is less room for error than ever.
Advanced metrics give Kansas City a 6.9% chance of making the playoffs — one more slip-up and it’s basically game over for Kansas City. And Peter Vermes knows it.
“What I would say for (every game), is it’s a simple one — we have to get points in all of those games if we’re going to have a chance,” he said. “We have to.”
The slight hitch? Of the final five teams Sporting KC must face, it is 1-1-5 against them this season, having played Minnesota twice.
The Star sat down with Vermes this week to preview the final five games of the regular season.
LA Galaxy (away): Sept. 15
Creeping the minute hand away from midnight has to start somewhere, and beating the eighth-place Galaxy would be a good start. The Zlatan Ibrahimovic-led side fell 2-1 on the road to Colorado Wednesday, giving it a short rest before hosting Sporting KC Sunday.
“I don’t think at this point in the season — I just don’t think that it’s where you can take advantage of a midweek game all that much anymore,” Vermes said. “I think because the climate is not in your favor, I think that because teams have played so many games if you’ve not had a lot of injuries you probably have a pretty fit team.”
Key to the game will be shutting down Ibrahimovic, the 23-goal striker Besler described as “a tough matchup” last time out.
Colorado Rapids (home): Sept. 21
The Rapids may be a point behind Sporting, but don’t count them out. Since ditching coach Anthony Hudson, Colorado is 10-7-4 under the leadership of Robin Fraser. The challenge of facing a new manager for Vermes — one whom he played alongside on the U.S. Men’s National Team — is one he acknowledges.
“There is no doubt in my mind that (Fraser) will do a really good job with that team and he’s already demonstrated that he can,” Vermes said. “They’ll be a different team that we’re playing. Will it be difficult? Sure.”
One positive for Kansas City is a Rapids lineup that features familiarity in former KC forwards Diego Rubio and Kei Kamara. Rubio scored Colorado’s sole goal in teams’ 1-1 tie earlier this season.
Minnesota United (away): Sept. 25
“The friendliest rivalry in sport” may not be so friendly come Sept. 25. Perhaps the toughest remaining game on paper, Minnesota is vying for home-field advantage heading into the playoffs.
“There’s a lot of difficulties in going there to play and I think it’s going to be exactly that,” Vermes said. “Especially at the end of the season, because I’m sure at that point, not knowing what’s going to happen with them at the end of the season, they’re going to be fighting to make sure they get home-field advantage in the playoffs.”
Kansas City controlled much of the play in the most recent matchup, effectively exploiting the gap between Minnesota’s defense and midfield. It was the first game this season in which Sporting KC employed a 4-5-1, allowing Daniel Salloi and Johnny Russell to sit further back in the gaps.
It’s a tactic Kansas City may have to employ again if it’s to pull off the upset in Allianz Field and quiet the Loons’ famous Wonderwall.
Portland Timbers (home): Sept. 29
Vermes believes his side did enough to leave Providence Park with at least a point last weekend. Heck, they should have left with all three.
But at the end of the day, a fluke goal papered over the cracks of an uninspiring offensive performance, as Kansas City played with Johnny Russell, Krisztian Nemeth and Felipe Gutierrez due to suspension and international duty.
With several weeks and multiple games between now and Sept. 29, Vermes doesn’t want to speculate on his lineup for that game — but it’s nearly a sure bet that at least Russell and Gutierrez will be featured at some point.
What he does know is that it will be a tight game.
“What always stands out to me against Portland is they’re always close games, they’re always tough games to play, and I don’t see that being any different when they come to play us,” Vermes said. “It’s going to be a battle because we’re both fighting for the same thing.”
Four of the last five games between these two have been decided by ties or one-goal differentials — the outlier being a 3-0 Kansas City victory in August 2018.
FC Dallas (away): Oct. 6
Let’s say it all goes to plan and Sporting KC is still in the playoff hunt come the final day of the regular season. What does Vermes say to his squad?
“I don’t really think that I’d have to give one. There’s a lot of experience on our team,” Vermes said. “Our guys have been in a lot of pressure situations over the years, so I think they would know what’s expected.”
And despite losing 2-0 the last time the two teams met, Sporting has to feel some sort of confidence.
Vermes’ men dominated possession-wise, but it took 17 shots before they finally put one on target. Sporting ended up outshooting Dallas 18-13 but had just two shots on goal.
An incredible final run-in combined with a more clinical performance in the final game is Kansas City’s last hope to dial back the clock and extend its playoff streak to nine straight seasons.