In Major League Soccer terms, Sporting Kansas City faces the ultimate litmus test tonight at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., against the two-time reigning MLS Cup champion LA Galaxy.
Even Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes acknowledges that the Galaxy, who have never gone longer than three seasons without an appearance in the MLS final, sets the bar for rest of the league.
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“Absolutely, LA is the team everybody is chasing,” Vermes said. “Two years in a row, they’ve been the MLS Cup champion, so, for sure, they’re the standard of the league and everybody tries to measure themselves against them.”
The Galaxy, 2-1-2, own eight MLS Cup appearances in the league’s 17 seasons and are tied with D.C. United for the most titles in MLS history with four.
“Obviously, they’ve got to be doing something right,” Sporting KC midfielder Graham Zusi said.
Star power certainly has been part of the equation, drawing fans to their games — home and away —in droves and creating a certain cachet around the club.
Even now with David Beckham having moved on to Paris Saint-Germain and Landon Donovan only recently working back into the mix, the Galaxy has an imposing roster steeped in talent.
Just don’t expect Sporting KC, 4-1-2, which moved atop the Eastern Conference standings with a 1-0 win Wednesday at the New York Red Bulls, to be hypnotized by the Galaxy’s mystique.
“I probably would have said that two years ago the guys would get up a little more for a game like this, but I wouldn’t say it anymore,” Vermes said. “Our team understands that every team presents a difficult challenge. Against LA, you know it’s going to be a very strong team you’re playing against, but our mentality no longer changes from night to night.”
It’s a sign of maturity that Sporting KC, which has won the last two Eastern Conference regular-season crowns, doesn’t get caught up overmuch in the opponent these days.
“Each game has its importance and we look at every game the same — an opportunity to get three points further our chances to reach our goals, which is to get into the playoffs and win a championship,” Zusi said.
Sporting KC hasn’t allowed a goal since the 21st minute of a 2-1 loss at Toronto FC in the season’s second game.
Led by goalkeeper and captain Jimmy Nielsen, Sporting KC has racked up five consecutive shutouts covering the last 519 minutes. It’s the second-longest shutout streak in club history.
Nielsen’s streak is the seventh-longest streak for a goalkeeper in MLS history and he tied the club record with his 37th career shutout Wednesday.
Of course, truth be told, it’s a team effort that belongs to every player on the field and not just Nielsen and his defenders.
“Our guys are committed to both sides of the ball,” Vermes said. “When people talk about how our defending’s so good, I hope people mean that when we lose the ball we have 11 guys defending. That’s truly what it is. It’s constantly putting teams under pressure when they have the ball.”
Such commitment, like Zusi’s 30-yard run to close down Roy Miller in the waning minutes against the Red Bulls, is required to take the field for Sporting KC.
“It’s something we, as a team, are committed to, so for us it’s not rare,” Zusi said. “That’s just what it takes to grind out wins like that. For us, it’s commonplace and expected as a team. It’s not that big a deal for us.”