Sporting Kansas City will open the Major League Soccer Cup playoffs Saturday in a setting that has become surprisingly comfortable — away from Sporting Park.
The league’s best road team is scheduled to travel to Gillette Stadium and face New England at 7 p.m. Saturday in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The second leg of the two-game semifinal series — which features aggregate scoring — will return to Sporting Park on Nov. 6 or 7.
But Sporting KC doesn’t plan to rely on its home game to carry the weight of the series. Not this time. The club is unbeaten in its last four road MLS matches — a streak that spans more than two months — and has been building road momentum with an eye on the postseason.
“I think you have to realize the intensity of the games take on a new level (in the playoffs), but the good thing is we’ve had quite a few games recently that have taken on the life of a playoff game,” Vermes said. “We’ve played a lot of tough games on the road late in the season and managed to come away with points.”
And they needed every last one of them.
A well-balanced Eastern Conference made for a long-lasting battle for playoff spots. Sporting KC was also in the mix for the Supporters’ Shield until the final day of the regular season, when New York defeated Chicago on Sunday and swooped in, taking home the honor instead.
Add to that, Sporting KC clinched its CONCACAF Champions League group on Wednesday to qualify for the knockout stage.
“The games were intense last year, but this year has taken on a new life because of the parity in our league,” Vermes said. “When you add on the Champions League games we’ve played, I think we’re a more hardened team this year, and that means we’re more ready for the playoffs.”
Perhaps being more battle-tested late in the season will produce better postseason results. That’s the hope, anyway.
Sporting KC had the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference the last two seasons but fell well short of its goal of an MLS Cup. It lost to Houston in the Eastern Conference finals in 2011 and again to Houston in the first round last season.
“The last couple of years factor in for sure,” Vermes said. “We’ve grown year to year. Our players have a lot more experience because of that. Hopefully all that stuff is a big factor.”