This league and its commissioner love to talk about the parity in MLS, and that proves to be frustratingly true with a look at the standings entering the final week of the season. Sporting KC find themselves in an absolute dog fight wrapping up their first year in the Western Conference. Just four points separate 2nd place from 7th place, and SKC sit in the 6th and final playoff spot at the moment.
That parity is good for the league and it is exciting. But it also means that the loss in San Jose really hurt. KC was in 4th place and still eyeballing the top of the table last week. And then just like that... they drop to 6th place and it is even possible they can slip out of the playoff picture entirely on the final day of the season. Sporting KC have just one point on the Earthquakes now. All it would take is an unlucky draw with the Rapids on Wednesday and a loss against a great Galaxy side on Sunday. That would give San Jose a chance to bump KC below the line by upsetting FC Dallas.
On the other hand, the tightly packed top of the table may also be a great thing at this point. SKC is the only team among those in contention with two matches remaining. Those are six absolutely HUGE points just sitting on the table table waiting for Vermes' Army. They can still leapfrog four teams and slide into that 2nd seed in the playoffs.
If they're able to do that, Sporting can avoid the knockout round. Only Houston and LA in 2012 have been able to survive the knockout round and get all the way to the final since the format was introduced in 2011*. No matter who you get matched up with in the Western Conference playoffs, you will be facing a dangerous team. As it stands now SKC would be up against the 3rd place Whitecaps in Vancouver for a one match knockout round. Simply not at all what PV wants in a quest for another MLS Cup. But with everything so close, things are going to look VERY different after the weekend.
The bottom line is that if Sporting KC take care of business, play at the level we know they are capable of, and win both games, then 2nd seed is theirs. It doesn't matter what everyone else does.
"Destiny is in our own hands." - Peter Vermes
However, anything less than that will leave them in a dangerous spot. Even if they are able to get four points out of the final two matches they may very well still only finish in 5th place! The Portland Timbers play last place Colorado on the final day, and the Whitecaps play a struggling Houston Dynamo. Wins from them would leave them with 53 points. Sitting at 48 points right now, KC would need all six points to jump ahead of them.
Returning to Sporting Park to face lowly Colorado Wednesday night, anything short of 3 points would be a disaster. Vermes is well aware of that and not going to look beyond them. "We've got to get points. Obviously, we know Colorado and they've been a tough team for us all season long," he told reporters ahead of the match.
"They're going to come on the field and have a group of guys ready to play and that's what we have to be ready for. We're going to have to battle, we're going to have to fight," Vermes acknowledged. While a win secures a spot in the playoffs and lifts his squad to 3rd place going into the final game, having to settle for a draw opens the door for San Jose and sets up a nervous Sunday evening that'll take years off your life. In addition to what the Royals are doing to you, that is.
The Sporting KC boss did offer some good news on the injury front Monday after training. Kevin Ellis, Ike Opara, Soni Mustivar, and Roger Espinoza all completed "basically full training." But he did say Ike and Roger still of course have a ways to go. Even so, if Ike can get fit enough to make it on the bench he could become a very dangerous weapon.
Vermes also said Besler was dealing with an injury on that same ankle to bother him in the past, but that he was working to get ready for Wednesday. I'd be willing to bet the Captain is just giving it some rest and will be wearing the armband.
With Nemeth and Mustivar back, this team is much better than the squad that fell to San Jose. Vermes and his guys are in a good spot to take care of business at home. He has shown a great ability to grind out results when he's needed them this season, and he'll have to do just that in these final two matches.
On Monday next week we could wake up with the 2nd seed and a bye in the playoffs, or the season could be over entirely.
But hey... we know how good these guys can be. They have the coach to get them there. They have the talent. They have the fight. I mean don't take my word for it, just listen to them!
I have no idea what is going to happen but one thing is for sure.... this is going to be a fun week.
* Updated: LA was also in the knockout round in 2012