It's been almost two weeks since the New York Red Bulls rallied to beat Sporting Kansas City 2-1 in the 89th minute, ending their season. It was a long fall, going from Eastern Conference contenders in August to the fifth seed in October. It was a season plagued by injuries, transfers, exhaustion and everything in between.
Yet, there were some bright moments too. Players were extended, records were broken, youth grabbed their first cups of coffee on the first team.
A season full of ups and downs ultimately fell on that Thursday night in New Jersey. Well, towards the end it was more downs than ups but this season was not a total waste. Progress was made in some aspects and provides optimism towards 2015.
Rolling in as the defending champions of the MLS Cup, Sporting Kansas City drew one of the toughest opening day spots in the entire league. They went into Seattle on March 8th, losing that match in a result that surprised absolutely no one. At this point, it's tradition to lose to Seattle in extra time. While that may have started the season on a bit of a sour note, they had played well on the road against a team that was projected to be really, really good (the results this season has proven that they were really, really good). This is where the gripes against keeper Eric Kronberg began with several people angry at this play on Barrett's game-winner.
Up next was a new experience for the club, playing in the knockout rounds of the CONCACAF Champions League. Nobody really knew what to think of the Cruz Azul team that came into Sporting Park four days later, a case of the unknown enemy. Well, Sporting did their job at home on the back of a Kevin Ellis goal. They carried a 1-0 lead into the second leg, giving fans hope that they would be able to hold the strong Mexican squad on the road.
After a league draw to FC Dallas, in which Sporting played mostly reserves, they headed to Mexico and were utterly embarrassed in a 5-1 loss to Cruz Azul. The funny thing was that if the halftime score had held, a 2-1 Cruz Azul lead with Benny Feilhaber proving the goal for Sporting KC, Sporting KC would have advanced on the away goal rule despite the aggregate score being 2-2. The second half took away any hopes of that. Sporting were destroyed on the wings, showing just how important Seth Sinovic was and how much his yellow card suspension hurt. Sporting led for 3 halves but the final result showed just how much work they still had to do to play at the level of the top Mexican clubs.
The rest of the month ended on a higher note. Sporting got a gritty 1-0 win over San Jose, their first win of the young season. They followed that up with a 3-2 victory against Colorado in which they scored three run of play goals including Dom Dwyer's top shelf beauty. This showed a return to winning ways and put Sporting Kansas City toward the top of the standings after a busy first month.
The next month was nowhere near as busy for Sporting KC, playing only three matches. It did start with a piece of bad news with Ike Opara suffering a season-ending injury that would hurt Sporting Kansas City's defensive depth. Nobody knew just how bad the defensive injuries were going to get but this was the start. Losing a quality backup hurt Sporting KC down the road.
On the field, toughed out a home draw against Real Salt Lake in an MLS Cup rematch which saw Uri Rosell get a red card. The next match, they showed their scoring abilities with a 4-0 rout over the Montreal Impact. Dom Dwyer took two goals in this game, rocketing his early goal total.
The last match of the month was not along the same vein, losing 2-0 in New England. This was the part of the season where New England was really, really good before they hit their mid-season cold streak. They took it to Sporting KC with Teal Bunbury scoring the late winner in poetic fashion. This was another game in which Kronberg drew a lot of criticism, especially on the Bunbury goal.
The month got off to a high note with a 2-0 home win over the Columbus Crew, followed by a 3-0 win over the Montreal Impact. Sporting looked to be stringing together a few wins and were hoping to break the usual "May swoon" that had plagued Sporting for the past few seasons.
Philadelphia was another team that had Sporting KC's number this year and showed it in the first matchup between the two squads. The Union upset Sporting KC 2-1 at Sporting Park, ending Sporting KC's mini-run. Uri Rosell picked up an injury in this match and it would end up being his last ever match with Sporting KC. This was also the last match before Graham Zusi and Matt Besler would head to the USMNT pre-World Cup camp, leading into one of the most interesting defensive matches of the year.
Opara was gone. Besler was gone. Lawrence Olum got called up to Kenya a couple of days before the match. Uri Rosell was hurt. Sporting Kansas City was forced to call upon the 17-year-old Erik Palmer-Brown to start his first match against the Chicago Fire in which Sporting KC played with a rare 3-5-2 formation. Palmer-Brown did as well as you would expect a 17-year-old to do, picking up two yellow cards and being ejected from the game. Claudio Bieler also got a start in this game but, as with most of the season, really did not have much of an impact partnered with Dom Dwyer at the top. Sporting fell 2-1 in Chicago.
Things got worse the following Wednesday for Sporting KC when Chance Myers went down in a match against Toronto FC. It would later be learned that he had a torn Achilles and would be out for the season. For a team already plagued by defensive injuries, this was a killer injury.
Sporting KC ended the month with a lackluster draw to the New York Red Bulls and a 1-0 loss at DC United. The back line was in chaos, transfer rumors were starting to swirl around and Peter Vermes was put into one of the toughest spots a coach can be in with all of his roster rotations. Through this point, Vermes had not been able to use the same lineup twice.
The bad news from May continued on through the first part of June when it was announced on June 3 that Sporting KC had sold Uri Rosell to Sporting Lisbon. A rock in the defensive midfield, the loss of Rosell would turn out to be a huge loss for the midfield and the defense as well.
Sporting Kansas City were overshadowed this month by the World Cup and understandably so. But before they could get to the tournament, Sporting had one more match before the break. They went down to face an equally hurt Houston side and pulled out a 2-0 victory. This was a nice boost for a team that had been struggling and now they had a few weeks before their next league match.
Going down to Brazil, Sporting Kansas City represented well at the World Cup. Matt Besler did suffer an injury in the first match against Ghana and was forced to be subbed out for John Brooks. This would actually end up working well as Graham Zusi, who subbed in to huge applause to the big crowd at Power and Light, sent in a corner that was headed in by JOHN BROOKS, IT'S JOHN BROOKS in the 85th minute to give the United States a huge 2-1 win over Ghana.
Between the next United States match, Sporting KC started their 2014 US Open Cup campaign with a 2-0 win over Minnesota United. A strange quirk to this game featured both teams in similar stripes, so Sporting KC played the second half with their warm-up shirts on.
Matt Besler was back for the United States in their next match against Portugal and Graham Zusi had found his way into the starting lineup. After going down 1-0 initially, Jermaine Jones' rocket into the net provided the equalizer and Graham Zusi's short cross to Clint Dempsey gave the Yanks the lead. If it hadn't been for the late Portugal equalizer, Sporting would have qualified for the group stage then and there.
Sporting continued their US Open Cup campaign and were completely shut down at home by the Portland Timbers. The Timbers came in and defeated Sporting 3-1 at Sporting Park in a match that wasn't as close as the scoreline suggests. That quickly ended their dreams of that particular piece of silverware but, in hindsight, it did save them some matches later on in the season.
The United States finished their group stage slate with a 1-0 loss to Germany. Goal differential saw them through to the knockout stage but finishing second in the group meant they would be going against Belgium in the next round.
Back to the U.S., Sporting KC pulled out a surprising win to end the month, defeating the same Portland Timbers team who had just embarrassed them on their home field 1-0 in Portland. This ended the month on a high note for Sporting, picking up wins in their only two league matches of the month.
This month is where it all started to come back for Sporting Kansas City. After Matt Besler and Graham Zusi returned from Brazil following the United States' 2-1 loss to Belgium, Sporting KC earned a point with a draw with Chicago. After that, they went on a three-game three game win streak that saw them take care of Montreal and Columbus before a huge home win over the Los Angeles Galaxy.
This win was punctuated with the announcement that Sporting Kansas City had signed Matt Besler and Graham Zusi to contract extensions, making them designated players. This alleviated fears that either one of them was going to transfer to a team abroad during the transfer window.
Meanwhile, Sporting KC were making more moves off the field as well. They signed Jorge Claros and concluded their multi-year pursuit of the Honduran. They also signed Martin Stueble for depth. This came off the heels of the still-mysterious release of Alex Martinez.
Sporting did lose their starting goalkeeper Eric Kronberg for a couple of months after he broke the fourth metacarpal in his right hand but Andy Gruenebaum was a more than serviceable replacement. Until he got hurt himself, of course.
The Manchester City friendly saw Claros and Steuble make their debuts. Sporting KC fell 4-1 in a match they were never expected to win and was looked on by many as an unnecessary midseason friendly.
They closed out the month with a 2-1 win at Toronto, a huge win for their Eastern Conference hopes. Graham Zusi and Jacob Peterson both scored in this match as Sporting continued their road dominance.
After a great July, August turned everything sour. After a lackluster 1-1 draw with the Philadelphia Union at home, Sporting KC's road winning streak ended at the hands of the Vancouver Whitecaps. Their midfield was dominated and the lack of Uri Rosell was starting to show. Also Gruenebuam was hurt, forcing Jon Kempin into the starting role. The young keeper would perform nicely in his few starts, giving Sporting fans optimism looking towards the future of the goalkeeping role.
Sporting got back on track with a 4-1 trouncing of Toronto FC at home that gave fans some optimism going into the final couple months of the season. Then it all started to go downhill.
It started in Nicaragua when Sporting was unable to control the match and ended up with a 1-1 draw with Real Esteli in the first match of the 2014-2015 CONCACAF Champions League. While a draw on the road isn't bad in CCL, the missed points would prove to be huge come October.
That would be the precursor to the turning point in the season. Sporting KC welcomed DC United to Sporting Park a few nights later in what was thought to be a huge match for the top of the Eastern Conference. Sporting were outplayed in every facet of the game and lost 3-0.
A week later, Sporting KC put out a similar performance and lost 3-1 to the Houston Dynamo at home. This was the storm delay game that provided some entertaining social media fodder but ended the month on a very sour note.
The poor form continued through the first few matches of September. They lost 3-1 in New England before losing 2-1 to the Red Bulls just a few days later. During their four-game losing streak, Sporting gave up 11 goals and looked like a ragged mess on defense. The exhaustion was starting to show and poor defensive play all around was not helping.
Sporting was able to rebound at Chivas USA, taking home a 4-0 victory that also saw Dom Dwyer break Preki's franchise record for most goals in a single-season. This was a nice bright spot that ended the losing streak and fans hoped that this would set Sporting on the right track.
It seemed to help in CONCACAF Champions League play, earning a 3-1 victory over Saprissa at home before trouncing Real Esteli 3-0 a few days later. It seemed like advancing to the knockout stage was in hand, all they had to do was not blow it at Saprissa in October.
The end of the month, however, was more of the same. Sporting KC's back line was not able to hold New England as they fell 3-2 at home. After a couple of bright spots, the focus was back on the defense and its poor form as we asked, what can be done to fix the back line?
Sporting went up to Washington D.C. to face off with DC United for the final time this season. After meeting with President Obama to celebrate their 2013 MLS Cup, Sporting held strong and earned a 0-0 draw at DC United. With the way that United had handled Sporting KC this season, this was the best result for them in 2014 against the eventual Eastern Conference winners.
Next up was the Chicago Fire and Sporting took care of them with a 2-0 victory. It looked like Sporting may be able to push past their defensive troubles and go in stronger to the playoffs.
Philadelphia, however, had different plans as they defeated Sporting KC 2-1 at PPL Park. This would be the third time this season that Sporting KC had failed to earn a win against an unexciting Union squad.
Sporting KC travelled down to Costa Rica for one of the more depressing points in 2014. Against the team they had beaten 3-1 less than a month ago, Sporting was unable to score an away goal and fell 2-0 to Saprissa. Due to their aggregate score and total points being tied, the away goal rule went into effect and Saprissa advanced on a count of their goal scored at Sporting Park. Sporting KC was eliminated from the CONCACAF Champions League.
Sporting followed that up with a 2-0 home loss to the New York Red Bulls in the regular season finale. This brought Sporting KC down to the fifth seed and made sure they'd be playing in the Eastern Conference play-in game later that week against the Red Bulls.
They were able to get an early lead on Dom Dwyer's 22nd goal of the season but Sporting were unable to hold the Red Bulls with Bradley Wright-Phillips sending New York through to the Eastern Conference semifinals. Sporting KC's season had ended before November for the first time since 2010.
The last few months of the season were particularly depressing considering how Sporting was able to overcome defensive depth issues in July to win against some quality opponents. Losing at Saprissa, to me, was the lowest point in the season since that was a game that could have gotten a result out of and should not have had to rely on getting an away goal to advance.
There were definitely high points. Getting Graham Zusi and Matt Besler extended will likely keep them here for the next few years at the very least. Erik Palmer-Brown made his debut and looked good for the future once he finally settled down. Dom Dwyer was a man on fire this season, and provided a huge part of Sporting KC's offense. Without him, Sporting may not even make the playoffs.
The lows points were definitely low, however. The last three months were a depressing time to be a Sporting KC fan with their uncharacteristic losing (imagine saying that four years ago). Losing Rosell hurts a lot since neither Olum nor Claros were able to replace him well.
And so now we brave a long winter ahead of us. 2015 will be a different year with two new teams and different rosters considering the dispersal and expansion drafts coming up next month. Offseason moves will be made and the team will be back in March, it's just a shame that a season that looking promising at points flamed out into an early exit.