A group of young Boy Scouts lined up along the edge of the Sporting Kansas City practice field Saturday morning at Swope Park. They stood there for the next 20 minutes, eagerly awaiting autographs from their favorite soccer athletes.
As the players trickled through the line following practice, signing soccer balls, T-shirts and other memorabilia, a boy scout asked Sporting KC forwards Soony Saad and Dom Dwyer a pressing question.
“Are you ready for the playoffs?” he asked.
An intriguing question. A complicated answer.
Sporting KC will play host to New York at 7:30 p.m. Sunday in the MLS regular season finale. The match will determine if Sporting KC earns the third seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs or if it falls into the knockout game.
Benny Feilhaber, Igor Juliao and Andy Gruenebaum will miss Sunday’s regular season finale, and a variety of injuries have put their playoff status in doubt, too.
Matt Besler returned to training Saturday for the first time in more than a week, but a contusion continues to furnish tightness along the back of his right leg. That puts his status in question for Sunday.
So as for the defending champions’ readiness for the postseason, there isn’t a clear-cut answer. At least not yet.
But there’s an emphasis on supplying one on the regular season’s last day.
“This is the playoffs. This is it,” Besler said. “We’ve been talking about this moment for the last two or three months — just get into the playoffs and see what happens. This is it.
“For me, this is a playoff game. We need to win this game and get a higher seed. We need to treat it like a playoff game.”
That’s why Besler is showing a sense of urgency to return to the field, even if it necessitates playing through pain. He hasn’t appeared since taking a hit to the back of his right hamstring during the U.S. national team’s friendly against Honduras on Oct. 14.
Because Saturday was his first day back at practice, the team will wait until Sunday to see how the injury responds before making a decision about his status.
Sporting KC could certainly use him. If it loses to New York on Sunday, it would have to play a knockout game next week to reach the Eastern Conference semifinals. New York, which trails Sporting KC by two points in the standings, would be in the same boat with a loss Sunday.
Columbus was tied with Sporting KC for third place in the standings heading into a match Saturday in Vancouver that concluded after press time.
“I think every time we play against each other, it’s always a good game. They’re a good team. I think they can be very explosive at times,” manager Peter Vermes said. “So it’s just one of those games (in which) it just winds up always being a good game. I don’t expect that to be any different.
“I think it will be more like a playoff game than in the past. It will take on a little different light because of the implicants the game has.”
The match will feature the top two scorers in the MLS.
New York striker Bradley Wright-Phillips has scored 25 goals this season, two shy of an MLS record. He holds the inside track on the Golden Boot, given to the regular season scoring champion.
Dwyer is second in the league with 22 goals. He set the franchise mark earlier this season.
They’re “going to try to make a name for the Golden Boot,” midfielder Paulo Nagamura said. “But I’m pretty sure both of them want to win the game first.”
NEW YORK AT SPORTING KANSAS CITY
WHEN/WHERE: 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Sporting Park
TV/RADIO: ESPN2; La Grand D (1340 AM)
ABOUT SPORTING KC (14-12-7): A victory guarantees Sporting KC the third seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. A loss, on the other hand, would send Sporting KC into the knockout game. Sporting KC is only 6-4-6 at Sporting Park this season.
ABOUT NEW YORK (12-10-11): The Red Bulls have won only twice away from home this season. They have produced just 15 goals in 16 away matches. Bradley Wright-Phillips leads the league with 25 goals and is two goals shy of tying an MLS single-season record.
BOTTOM LINE: Sporting KC has played well in two meetings with New York this season, but neither resulted in victories. The two clubs tied on May 27, and New York won 2-1 on Sept. 6, a match during which Sporting KC felt it owned the pace of play.
PREDICTION: New York 2, Sporting KC 1