When Sporting Kansas City acquired goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum from the Columbus Crew last December, coach Peter Vermes billed the trade as nothing more than an insurance policy. In case something didn’t go as expected in Eric Kronberg’s first year as a starter, he had a Plan B.
“And with his experience, he’s a heck of a Plan B to have,” Vermes said.
As Sporting KC enters its stretch run, Plan B has become Plan A.
Gruenebaum will earn his second straight start Friday night when the club plays host to the Chicago Fire at Sporting Park. And he figures to be the goalkeeper who will lead Sporting KC into the playoffs, barring any unforeseen circumstances.
Sporting KC has three regular season matches remaining.
“Anytime you get your named called, you want that opportunity to perform well,” Gruenebaum said. “Especially being a hometown guy, it’s always been a dream of mine to play in front of the home crowd. I’m excited for it. Anyone would be.”
His number has been called at a critical time of the season, with Sporting KC sitting in third place in the Eastern Conference. The defending MLS champions can clinch a playoff spot with a win Friday against Chicago.
Gruenebaum, a Blue Valley North graduate, has started 10 league games this year. Ironically, as much as he has dreamed of playing in front of his hometown fans, only two of those starts have come at home.
Vermes said he envisioned Gruenebaum making only a handful of starts this season — most of them in the CONCACAF Champions League matches — but that plan changed when Kronberg broke a bone in his hand in the first week of July.
Kronberg returned from the injury on Sept. 26, but he allowed three goals in a 3-2 loss to New England. Gruenebaum earned the start a week later and posted his second straight shutout in a 0-0 draw at D.C. United.
The job was his.
“I think it’s unfortunate, but we don’t have a lot of time left to let (Kronberg) get his form back,” Vermes said. “He did not have enough training to kind of get into a rhythm. That would’ve helped him with his confidence. It just wasn’t enough time. It wasn’t anything other than time.”
The decision was made easier, Vermes said, when considering Gruenebaum’s experience. Gruenebaum made 55 starts for Columbus over the past two seasons.
He’s also been in better form as of late. After not posting a shutout in his first eight starts, he has recorded two straight. He made seven saves in the draw with D.C., one of them from point-blank range off the foot of Fabian Espindola that Vermes labeled a “game-saving” stop.
“He’s been through this quite a few times. He’s played a lot of games,” Vermes said. “Those are experiences he has (that) a guy (can) only get because he’s been there. That part can give us a steadiness when we need it.”
He’s been aided, of course, by a defense that captain Matt Besler says is starting to match it’s early-season performance. And that hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“We’ve struggled at times this year obviously, but I think we’ve shown we have the pieces, especially in the back, to shut people out,” Gruenebaum said. “I think we have to continue to be (jerks) to play against. That’s what makes us tough.”
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CHICAGO AT SPORTING KC
WHEN/WHERE: 7:30 p.m. Friday, at Sporting Park
TV/RADIO: KCMI (Ch. 38); WHB (810 AM), La Gran D (1340 AM)
ABOUT CHICAGO (5-8-18): The Fire were eliminated from playoff contention last week after playing to a scoreless tie with Montreal. It marked the Fire’s 18th tie of the season, setting a new league record.
ABOUT SPORTING KANSAS CITY (13-11-7): The club is looking to break a three-game home losing streak, and it has produced only a 5-4-6 record at Sporting Park this season. Defender Seth Sinovic will miss the match with yellow card accumulation. Defensive midfielder Jorge Claros remains suspended.
BOTTOM LINE: Sporting KC has put together better defensive outings as of late, and it expects to welcome central defender Aurelien Collin back from injury. Chicago’s scoring options will be limited without reigning MVP Mike Magee, who had right hip surgery in August.
PREDICTION: Sporting KC 2, Chicago 0