An offseason makeover overtook the Sporting Kansas City training facilities at Swope Park last winter, a project that featured the expansion of the weight room. The redesign shifted nearly every item in the workout space, but it left untouched a pair of objects hanging from the wall:
The up-to-date Major League Soccer standings.
“It’s pretty big in the gym. You really can’t miss it,” rookie defender Amadou Dia said. “I look at it every day.”
That’s by design.
The MLS standings have been a staple of the complex since it opened, a motivational tool of sorts provided by coach Peter Vermes.
“I want them to know where we are,” Vermes said. “I think a visual of knowing where you are is a good idea for the players. ... It’s one thing to hope you can get a good result because you had a good day. Or you (can) go out and get a result because you had a purpose, a plan, and you were able to execute it.”
That table, though, has provided a bit of a misleading picture this season.
For example: Sporting KC will enter a match with Houston on Saturday (7:30 p.m. at Sporting Park) in fourth place in the Western Conference standings, five points behind first-place FC Dallas. But Sporting KC has played at least two fewer games than every other team in the playoff picture, hampering any potential climb to the top of the standings.
Until this month.
The chance to make an ascent is rapidly approaching. Sporting KC, 9-4-6, is slated for seven matches in August, and six of them are part of the MLS regular season schedule. A U.S. Open Cup semifinal match against Real Salt Lake will briefly interrupt the cycle on Aug. 12.
“It’s a big month. A lot of people are talking about the games in hand we have, but we have to take advantage of those games,” captain Matt Besler said. “They don’t mean anything unless we pick up the points.”
The first domino of a seven-match month falls Saturday with a familiar opponent. Sporting KC has already faced Houston twice this year. After the clubs played to a 4-4 draw in April, Sporting KC defeated the Dynamo 3-1 in the U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals on July 21.
There are some within the Sporting KC circle who refer to Houston as the club’s biggest rival, and the two previous meetings did little to discount those notions. Each of those games spotlighted dramatic second halves, and they also each included a Houston ejection.
In the last meeting, Houston’s Luis Garrido was sent off in the first half for a hard and late challenge on Dia. In the second half, players from the two teams had to be separated during a scrum.
“I learned what it was going to be like the last two games,” Dia said. “I’m definitely expecting some physicality. It’s all part of the game. I’m looking forward to it. It makes it a little more fun.”
And competitive, too. Vermes said his club has played some of its best soccer against Houston over the past couple of years after the teams met in three consecutive postseasons (2011, 2012 and 2013).
That’s not a coincidence.
“It’s two teams that I think for sure bring out the best in each other,” Vermes said. “There’s no doubt we realize that they’ve been, over the years, a team we’ve tried to measure ourselves (up) to, and at some point we had to get over the hump against them. We were able to (do that) in 2013.
“We know they come to play every single game. It’s a team that challenges us and gets us to play at our best.”