The Full 90

Full 90 Mailbag: What’s the best-case playoff opponent for Sporting KC?

Special to The Kansas City Star

There are just two games left for Sporting Kansas City this season before the playoffs begin and the result in each match will determine a different future for the club.

A win (or draw) on Thursday in Costa Rica will advance Sporting KC to the knockout stage of the CONCACAF Champions League. (A big result could help push them into a higher seed.) A loss likely ends Sporting KC’s two-year run of CCL fixtures until 2016.

A win (or draw) on Sunday against New York in the MLS finale could hold Sporting KC at the three seed (and a matchup with the New England Revolution). A loss (and positive result for Columbus) could drop KC into the play-in game (basically a win-or-lose single elimination game) and potentially no more games at Sporting Park this year.

With this much still at stake this late and obviously on the mind of most #AskTheFull90 participants, let’s open up the mailbag.

Kansas City can wind up in one of three spots for the playoffs: #3 (and facing New England in a home and away series), #4 (hosting Columbus or New York in the play-in game) or #5 (and traveling to face Columbus or New York in the play-in game).

The winner of the #4-5 game would face Eastern Conference winner D.C. United in a two-leg series.

In a bubble, the best-case scenario is probably hosting the Red Bulls in the play-in game as the #4 seed. While the Red Bulls do have some dazzling offensive talent (golden boot winner Bradley Wright-Philips, Thierry Henry, et al), I think KC matches up better with them than the Revs or Columbus (at least right now).

I wouldn’t want to face New England until the conference finals if possible. For whatever reason (cough Lee Nguyen cough), the Revolution just have Sporting’s number.

It’s also worth noting that if you throw out the 3-0 match in August (when KC was just atrocious) Sporting has played pretty tight against D.C. United. So, while the play-in game would mean a single-elimination mid-week game*, it might be a slightly more doable path.

*Worked for the Royals didn’t it?

I think, honestly, they’d probably say the most important thing is qualifying for the CCL knockout stage because the only way to win trophies is to qualify for the knockout stages. (And, they already did that for the MLS Cup.)

Sporting can advance to the CCL quarterfinals with a victory or draw against Saprissa on Thursday. (They can also make it with a one-goal loss, a two-goal loss if KC scores two or more goals, or a 3-1 loss and the successful drawing of lots.)

As of Tuesday night D.C. United (12 points), Olimpia (9), Alajuelense (6), Herediano (10) and Club America (10) had all qualified for the knockout stage.

As of right now, if they qualify, Sporting KC would be no worse than the 7 seed. With a win, KC could potentially push up to a fourth seed behind D.C., Herediano and America. Seeding for the knockout stage is based on points earned in the group stage.

Kansas City definitely saw what happened with Portland last night — in position to clinch, but fell 3-1 to Olimpia in Honduras — and will try not to let that fate befall KC as well.

However (and this is a big however), I think the MLS playoffs will be the priority. Peter Vermes probably won’t risk Matt Besler in Costa Rica and might try to rest a few players (maybe even Dom Dwyer and Graham Zusi).

In a season beset by frustrations and challenges, qualifying for both the playoffs and the knockout stage of the CCL would be a relative success — provided you don’t hold it up to the MLS Cup won last year. (I get that that might be hard for some.)

I tend to be optimistic given how much of a crap-shoot the MLS Cup playoffs have proven to be over the last six or seven years. But I think the thing that might fix this team the most is something they can’t get right now: Rest and recovery time.

One thing that might fix Kansas City in the temporary though is to play a little more compact and slower — like they did in D.C. earlier this month to earn a 0-0 draw.

What won’t work against the Revs/Red Bulls/Crew is what happened in Philadelphia.

Against the Union, Sporting pushed up into the attacking third in numbers like a possession team (which they can be) but defended high with small numbers like a pressing team (which they can’t without a bridge player like Oriol Rosell or a solid defensive fullback like Chance Myers).

When in attack, KC tried to play too quickly and turned the ball over too often. These turnovers exposed their overcommitment and left Aurelien Collin and Kevin Ellis to try and cover way too much ground.

Kansas City had seven players trailing the ball when Philly starts its counter. The defenders clump together to protect the 18-yard box, but there’s no support out wide or from deep — leftback Seth Sinovic is the one closest to the penalty spot. The Union had a choice of about three different channels to attack.

A slightly slower tempo in possession that doesn’t push as many players forward might not be the most attractive approach for KC, but it’s one that worked last year in the MLS Cup playoffs.

Look, Kansas City for all its faults is making the playoffs. You can’t say that about Toronto (who spent millions to get there) and, as of this writing, Portland (who won the West but sit on the wrong side of the red line right now).

Those are the two biggest disappointments for me. Kansas City is a draw away from earning at least 50 points for the fourth-consecutive year. Only Seattle, Los Angeles and Real Salt Lake have pulled that feat off.

Almost two weeks ago, a thread on Reddit posted a cumulative three-year table. At the time, Kansas City was second behind Seattle and even with Los Angeles based on total points accumulated over three seasons.

Oddly enough, since that was posted on Oct. 9, Kansas City has actually taken the lead in that race with 170 points over the last three seasons — one ahead of the Sounders and two above the Galaxy.

Despite the down year talk about Kansas City, it’s not like KC fell off the map completely.

I disagree — only because I think it’s impossible to put the injuries aside. Consider that this is list of Sporting KC players who missed action because of injuries this year.

Eric Kronberg, Andy Gruenebaum, Chance Myers (just 7 MLS games), Igor Juliao, Ike Opara (3 games), Aurelien Collin, Erik Palmer-Brown, Matt Besler, Seth Sinovic, Oriol Rosell, Paulo Nagamura, Benny Feilhaber, Sal Zizzo, C.J. Sapong and Jacob Peterson.

Trying taking that many or those sort of players out of the D.C. United roster — say if they didn’t have Bill Hamid for 5-6 games, Perry Kitchen for 3-4 scattered through the summer, Sean Franklin was out most of the year, Chris Rolfe missed a stretch and Bobby Boswell was at the World Cup. Is United finishing first place in that scenario? Uh, not likely.

While teams (such as New England) did get appreciably better, it’s not like Kansas City spent the whole season drowning.

Going into the month of May, Kansas City had one of the deepest and most balanced rosters in Major League Soccer. Benny Feilhaber was finally stringing together games we all knew he was capable of playing and Dom Dwyer was coming good.

After beating Los Angeles 2-1 this summer, Kansas City’s depth was on full display and considered an MLS Cup favorite still.

But this summer, Kansas City sprained its ankle. And, just like when you sprain an ankle during a game, you lace up your boots tighter and hope the swelling goes down. Only, it didn’t and KC had to hobble through long stretches not at 100 percent.

Based on what I just wrote before, yes. But, what are you doing trying to bring perspective into this conversation? Sports is no place for perspective!

I think a championship is good for a five-year grace period. As a fan, I know that’s impossible some times.

But, as stated above, Kansas City can still reach 50 points, achieve the playoffs and potentially lock up a spot in the Champions League knockout stage. Toronto might pay another $100 million to know what all that feels like.

Vermes’ job isn’t in question now. And it won’t be until/if this team starts missing the playoffs.

Feilhaber has shown this year that he’s a capable two-way midfielder — he’s got 227 recoveries this year, a lot for a guy who is nominally an attacking midfielder — and Zusi always works hard.

But, as much as I like Nagamura, that trio only works with someone who is more mobile and capable of doing the big stuff. (But, not sure where you’d find a guy like that.)

Thanks for the good questions. Back again for a playoff-themed edition next week.

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