Before Sporting Kansas City’s training on Tuesday at Swope Soccer Village, integral holding midfielder Ilie Sanchez plainly laid out what all – Sporting KC coaches, players, and fans – have likely been feeling after a late-season swoon that followed the glory of winning the 2017 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Championship.
“The last five or six games of the regular season were not what we expected from us for our performance…,” the holding midfielder stated. “I am disappointed because our fans cannot enjoy this game live in our stadium.”
A 1-3-2 record in the last stretch of the Major League Soccer regular season strangled hopes for what was the goal and focus from the start of preseason – gaining a top-two seed in the Western Conference and the first-round bye and home-field advantage in the subsequent conference semi-final two-game series that goes with it.
Instead, Sporting Kansas City will enter the knock-out round of the playoffs Thursday night at Houston Dynamo as the fifth seed.
But in victory there is relief, there is hope, there is redemption.
That’s why Americans love the playoffs. In the postseason, everything changes.
“Everything changes because no matter how good you were before, it doesn’t mean you are going to be good now, doesn’t mean how poor you were before – Seattle proved it last year: they were the last place team getting in, the next thing you know, they go all the way to final [and win MLS Cup].
Specifically for Sporting Kansas City, a win on Thursday provides relief from three continuous seasons of losing away in the knock-out round. And a win on Thursday gets them to that cherished two-game series, albeit without home-field advantage.
“We are one of the best teams in two games,” said Ilie. “So if we play at home and away, we are difficult to beat.”
Sporting KC’s consistency and their strong home record are the reasons for optimism in a two-game series. The reason for optimism Thursday is consistency as well.
Even in their recent dip, Kansas City consistently created opportunities and was difficult to score on. As charted here, Sporting KC is top among playoff teams in creating chances in the form of “Expected goals.” In their recent two-game series with Houston, Sporting Kansas City broke their defense down repeatedly, taking 42 shots, with 12 of them on goal, yet put only one past Houston netminder Tyler Deric.
“[Being successful] is not about us breaking them down. When you have  shots, at some point some of those are going to go in,” Vermes stated. “It’s more on us [to finish] than it is on them [defending].”
In the most recent clash with Houston, Zusi recounted that Deric “stood on his head” in the scoreless draw October 15, saving many of the hosts’ seven shots on goal spectacularly.
In front of his own goalkeeper, backup Andrew Dykstra (in for the recovering but “not ready yet” Tim Melia, per Vermes), Zusi confirmed the necessary mentality inherent in the season-long defensive consistency, “That will be our [defensive] mindset: locking it down as much as possible.”
In the six-game season closing slump, Sporting Kansas City allowed just over one goal per game, off the .85 goals allowed per game during their MLS-leading defense season but still strong.
A knock-out playoff game win in Houston on Thursday is everything for Sporting Kansas City.
“What it comes down to is going down to Houston playing the way we know we can, not wavering too much, not getting frustrated with the past few results,” Zusi said, “but doing what we do well, creating those chances and hopefully they fall for us this time.”
A win means Sporting Kansas City can redeem their late-season failure, have reason to be hopeful going into a two-game series, and regain the type of momentum that carried them to the Open Cup title.
“If we take care of this business, we really put ourselves in a good spot,” Zusi said. “Getting a chance to play a home game gives us a really good chance to advance.”
And to them a win is in consistency, not in training or tactics – they have broken down the Dynamo before, and they have shutout the Dynamo before.
But it will take execution in the moment. A separation here, a goal-saving tackle there. A game-winning save. Everything is up to the players on the night.