Only four days after Sporting Kansas City hoisted the Philip Anschutz trophy in freezing temperatures last December, coach Peter Vermes departed for a European scouting trip.
Six weeks later, training camp was already underway. And thus began the team’s pursuit of a second straight MLS championships.
The ensuing, ongoing journey has included three-season ending injuries to players, even more international absences and the club’s longest losing streak in four seasons.
But now the real fun begins.
Sporting KC clinched its spot in the MLS postseason Friday with a 2-0 win against visiting Chicago in front of 18,938 fans at Sporting Park. It marked the club’s first home MLS victory since Aug. 16.
“We were never worried,” captain Matt Besler said. “... There’s been a lot of ups and downs, but we’ve accomplished our main goal — that’s to get into the playoffs. When you make the playoffs, you give yourself a chance to win a championship.”
Sporting KC looked destined for a second consecutive scoreless draw before Graham Zusi wrecked that notion with a left-footed strike in the 80th minute. Dom Dwyer added an insurance goal in stoppage time, his franchise-best 21st of the season.
Dwyer missed a penalty kick in the 13th minute, but his stoppage-time atonement came only moments after goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum denied Patrick Ianni on a point-blank attempt that would have tied the match. Gruenebaum made six saves to record his third straight shutout and extended his scoreless streak to 306 minutes, even though the club played without starting defenders Aurelien Collin and Seth Sinovic.
“I’d have to watch the tape to see how many big saves he made, but off the top of my head, it was three or four huge saves,” Besler said. “That’s what big goalkeepers do.”
Gruenebaum’s first-half saves kept the game tied. His last-minute heroics helped Sporting KC end a three-game losing streak and secure its fourth consecutive trip to the MLS postseason.
The latter was far from guaranteed — perhaps even in doubt — only a month ago, when the club endured its first four-game losing streak since 2011. It had lost five of its past six league matches prior to Friday.
An impressive home victory has its way of changing the outlook. Sporting KC, 14-11-7, moved into second place in the Eastern Conference with two regular-season matches remaining.
“We’ve gone on skids before. You can’t go through a season where we haven’t or where any team hasn’t,” Zusi said. “Where we pride ourselves is coming back from those skids. It took us a little longer this team, for whatever reason, but I think the past month has been very good from us.”
Zusi was certainly in top form Friday. After breaking the scoreless tie, his crossing pass 10 minutes later made for an easy header for Dwyer.
“On that one, Dom should be giving him a big kiss,” Vermes said. “Because he just had to stand there and jump up.”
Sporting KC will make its final road trip of the MLS regular season when it travels to face Philadelphia on Oct. 18. It returns home for a season finale against the New York Red Bulls on Oct. 26.
That adds up to an opportunity to build some momentum heading into the playoffs. The club took a four-game winning streak into the postseason in 2013 before winning the championship.
“It gives us more confidence and momentum going into the playoffs, which has proven in the past to be huge,” Zusi said. “Teams that are playing well going into the playoffs typically go pretty far.”
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