Speaking in front of many season-ticket holders, long-time dedicated supporters, and Sporting Kansas City’s player roster at the 2017 Season Kickoff Event in downtown Kansas City last March, Sporting Club CEO Robb Heineman stated that “Championships endure forever: It’s time for another championship.”
Six months on, Sporting Kansas City has earned the right to play in the 2017 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Final this Wednesday and is in the thick of a very hotly contested playoff race in MLS’s Western Conference as they sit in fourth place – only three points shy of leader Vancouver Whitecaps, yet just six points above eighth-place San Jose Earthquakes.
Beginning Saturday with its MLS match against the New England Revolution, Sporting KC begins a 15-day, four-game homestand, including the open cup final, which will go far in determining their championship fate. The U.S. Open Cup Final is a here-and-now opportunity. But given that Sporting KC has fallen out of the playoffs in hard-to-stomach losses in away matches in each of the last three seasons, gaining home-field advantage for the MLS playoffs is critical. Thus, it too is a here-and-now opportunity. The road to another possible championship – the 2017 MLS Cup - needs to go through Children’s Mercy Park.
“We are all fighting for [home-field advantage] for sure,” said Manager and Technical Director Peter Vermes. “Also, being in a two-game series is an important aspect to it too. We’ve been through that quite a few times over the years, and I think we are pretty good in those situations. That is a major goal of ours.”
So which championship takes priority in the next 15 days? And how is the team managed so that the odds of winning both championships are strong?
“Both are priorities. We all know how important home games are, so we are putting everything we can into this game on Saturday. And we are going to do everything we can to get three points,” said Sporting KC Captain Matt Besler. “Everybody knows that we play the Open Cup final on Wednesday, it’s not like we are not talking about it. We view both games as very big opportunities for us to win.”
Added goalkeeper Tim Melia, “We’ve been on the road a little bit [where Sporting is 2-6-6], we have to get back in our rhythm playing the type of game we want to – possession-oriented – in front of our fans. And that is the only thing we are focused on.”
Both comments are revealing. Sporting Kansas City’s MO has always been about making the U.S. Open Cup equally important as the MLS regular season. That business-first, game-to-game philosophy has served them well, three U.S. Open Cups and two MLS Cups later. But it is Melia’s comment that reveals the deeper how.
Call it consistency if you want to be boring. Call it sticking to your guns if you want to be cliché. But call it rhythm if you want to know what must run throughout every member of the coaching staff and into the players who step on the field, whether in training or in games.
“When I change the team around, there is very little drop-off in our model of play. And that is a big help to the team because if you play one way with a certain group of guys, and then it falls off when you change a few guys immensely, it can really change the rhythm of play,” stated Vermes. “And it really hasn’t done that this year. That has been a key to a lot of our consistency.”
With his daily approach and insistence on playing the same way at home and away, Vermes has done much to keep the rhythm fluid. And his technical director side has too as this year’s Sporting Kansas City squad seems more able to sustain the necessary rhythm in the style of play than previous incarnations, especially up front with newer faces like Gerso, Daniel Salloi, Diego Rubio, Latif Blessing, and now Cristian Lobato bearing much of the attacking load. A squad that is fighting deep and at a high level in two competitions needs to be rotated to stay fresh.
But on the road in the last two games, especially in the 1-0 loss to New York City Football Club on September 6 where Vermes has some pointed comments for his side, the rhythm faltered. Coming home, where Sporting is 8-0-5, will help. But so will the consistency of the backbone of the side, those veteran players who know how to weather the storms of a long season, of balancing championships, of keeping the team focused on its mode of play, even dictating it. These are the ones that don’t leave the field because of their consistent rhythm in a variety of areas.
Roger Espinoza. Ilie Sanchez. Besler. Graham Zusi. Seth Sinovic. Benny Feilhaber. Four crucial games in 15 days? A final only three days after a critical home match? They got this.
“There are guys with a ton of experience all over the field. And that is why we are where we are,” said Melia. “We are in stretching distance from getting a home-field advantage in the playoffs, we are in the Open Cup final, and we have a very organized defense. That is because of the presence of the veterans throughout the group.”
Finishing in the top four of the conference would mean a home playoff game, but to gain a bye into the conference semifinals and that two-game, away-and-home series Vermes spoke of, a top-two finish is necessary.
In the end, it is true that three of Sporting Kansas City’s five championships have been won on home turf; for the others, one was won at a neutral site and the other away. The 2004 MLS Cup Final was lost at a neutral site and of other nine playoff-ending losses in franchise history, six were away games.
Home is where we all find our natural rhythms. Here’s to Sporting Kansas City making Children’s Mercy Park their home of rhythm Saturday, Wednesday, and many days and nights into December.