After five long years of frustration the wait will finally end for Sporting Kansas City fans.
Playoff soccer is coming back to Children’s Mercy Park – or, if you wish, it’s coming to the stadium for the first time since taking on its current name in 2015.
The last playoff game in Kansas City was arguably the greatest night in the club’s history, the 2013 MLS Cup final, won by Sporting in a 7-6 penalty shootout after a 1-1 draw with Real Salt Lake through regulation and extra time.
At the time Kansas City looked set to build a real dynasty.
Among the players on the field were 28-year-old Benny Feilhaber, 27-year-old Graham Zusi, 27-year-old Aurelien Collin, 26-year-old Matt Besler, 25-year-old Chance Myers, 24-year-old C.J. Sapong and 23-year-old Dom Dwyer. The lineup was strong enough that 24-year-old Ike Opara, a future MLS Defensive Player of the Year, and 23-year-old Teal Bunbury, who had already been capped by the U.S. national team, didn’t even see the field that night.
The future was unquestionably bright, with Sporting Kansas City boasting a core of stars in their prime and a set of young talents that looked primed to be a contender in Major League Soccer for the next half decade.
A half decade later, that promise remains unfulfilled.
In the five years since that 2013 MLS Cup win, a troubling trend emerged for the club. The regular season would end with a poor run of form, with SKC limping into road matches in the knockout round. Devastating losses at the first hurdle followed each time.
In 2014 Sporting had a lead on the New York Red Bulls before Bradley Wright-Phillips struck twice in the final 13 minutes. A trip to face the Portland Timbers in 2015 saw the club take a lead in extra time, only to be pegged back in the 118th minute before falling in the shootout that followed. In 2016 it was an 88th minute goal from the Seattle Sounders’ Nelson Valdez, his first of the season, which decided a feisty first-round clash. Last year, 37-year-old Vicente Sanchez was Sporting’s undoing, coming on in the 87th minute and setting up the game’s only goal in extra time as the Houston Dynamo moved on.
Sporting made sure to avoid a similar fate in 2018.
The final five matches of the regular season saw the club pick up three wins and two draws. A win on the final matchday against LAFC, in a battle for the top spot in the Western Conference, left no doubt.
Not only will Sporting be back at home in the playoffs in 2018, the club will have a home field advantage in the West.
“Our fans were unbelievable today and every time we play at home,” Sporting midfielder Roger Espinoza said after the win over LAFC. “That’s one of the reasons why we wanted to win. We wanted to be the No. 1 seed so we can have as many games as we can at home.”
The homecoming will have to wait, however.
Peter Vermes’ side must first deal with the daunting task of a trip to Rio Tinto Stadium in the first leg of the Western Conference semifinals
Despite RSL coming in as the bottom seed in the West and SKC entering the playoffs at the top of the table, it would be hard to point to Sporting as a heavy favorite. RSL has owned the rivalry in recent years, with SKC picking up just one win in 12 league outings since that 2013 MLS Cup final triumph.
The two meetings in the regular season also favored RSL. Mike Petke’s side took a 4-2 win at home, in a game that saw both Daniel Salloi and Roger Espinoza sent off for Sporting, before grinding out a 1-1 draw in Kansas City in late September.
But the Sporting side of October and November has a distinctly different feel from the one that played through the summer.
Dominant wins over Vancouver and FC Dallas led up to the gritty win over LAFC on the final day to secure the top seed in the West.
“The first thing is that this was our goal from the outset of our season,” Vermes said of finishing top in the West. “I’m very proud of the group for achieving it. Now that it’s over with, now it’s time to get to the next aspect of this season and that is the playoffs and hopefully a road to the Cup.”
Vermes has his side rolling into the postseason.
"The last couple of games show that there are a lot of situations where we reacted the right way as a team," Salloi told MLSsoccer.com after training on Wednesday. "The last game, we went a man down and were very disciplined of defending to secure our win. Those are things champions can do, winners can do. Those aren't easy situations."
Feilhaber, Dwyer, Collin, Sapong, Myers and Bunbury are all gone these days. The bright future of the club now resides in players like Salloi, Jaylin Lindsey, Diego Rubio and Gianluca Busio. Zusi in now more defender that flying winger and, should the club find itself in the MLS Cup final, Opara being left on the bench again seems like a long shot.
The names have changed, but the style is similar.
Vermes once again has a team that lacks an attacking focal point but gets goals from all over the park. Sporting hit a club record 65 goals in 2018, but Salloi, the club’s leading scorer, netted just 11. Three other players hit at least seven goals while the team had nine members score at least three. As you would expect from a Vermes-coached team, the defense has also been among the best in the league, allowing just 40 goals in 34 matches.
And with the comforts of home to look forward to, it’s hard not to believe that this Sporting Kansas City side could be in line for a run at another MLS Cup title.
Real Salt Lake stands in the way once again.