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Playoff Stretch-Run Stresses for Sporting Kansas City

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Since Dom. And what can aid, and derail, Sporting KC’s run for home-field advantage?

MLS: Los Angeles Galaxy at Sporting KC Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Sporting Kansas City has answered some recent questions with firm “Yeas”.

Can they produce goals and win after trading away Dom Dwyer, their all-star striker and second all-time leading scorer? Sporting KC has scored 12 goals and gone 4-2-2 for 1.75 points per game since the trade, a higher ppg figure than before Dwyer was jettisoned for an MLS record amount of allocation money. Young players like Diego Rubio (4 goals), Daniel Salloi (2), and Gerso (2) have taken up the slack. So, Yea.

Can they juggle both here-and-now opportunities and win the U.S. Open Cup and stay in the race to gain a home playoff match in their current 15-day, four-game homestand? A 2-1 U.S. Open Cup title win and wins of 3-1 and 2-1 over New England and the LA Galaxy answer, Yea. However, there is one match to go in a huge clash with first-place Vancouver Whitecaps this Saturday.

It seems a given that Sporting Kansas City will reach the playoffs for a club record seventh straight season with its magic number being five (as detailed by the club here) and there being five matches remaining in the MLS Regular Season: two at Children’s Mercy Park – where they are on a 24 game unbeaten streak, 10-0-5 this season – and three away – where they are 2-6-6 on the season.

So. Where does Sporting Kansas City sit now? And what are the anchors and the pitfalls that can impact their run to the playoffs and the capture of that vital home-field advantage? Remember, as outlined here, “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… The road to another possible championship – the 2017 MLS Cup - needs to go through Children’s Mercy Park.”

Currently, Sporting KC (12-6-11) is in a second-place tie with Portland Timbers, but have played two less matches than PTFC, and is only one point behind the Western Conference leading Whitecaps, who is even on games played. The top four finishers in the conference gain a home-playoff game, but the top two get a bye through the one-game knockout round of the playoffs (Oct. 25-26) and home-field advantage in the conference semi-finals (Oct 29-Nov 5). All scenarios for clinching at least a single home playoff game as soon as possible begin with a victory on Sunday that would vault Sporting KC into first place and further cement their position as a top-two finisher in the West.

The remaining schedule is a minor pitfall. The two home games are a good, but both are against strong sides in Vancouver and the Houston Dynamo, who, despite being in 7th place now, have a 75% chance of making the playoffs. The three road games are a trial. Only two wins and seven goals scored in 14 games portend struggle. Yet, Sporting has gained points from eight of the 14 road matches, 12 points total. Win at home. Tie on the road. Sporting KC is almost at that clip. The games are against Minnesota United, Houston, and Real Salt Lake, the first who put a 2-0 loss on Kansas City in early May and are 3-1-1 in their last five matches, the latter both in a fight for their playoff lives. Match congestion is minor with the remaining games mostly on weekends, with one Wednesday game – away at Houston – sandwiched in on October 11.

Is the prolonged season a significant enemy? Yes, it is a long season for all teams involved, but not all sides in the playoff race had the extra matches that came with winning the U.S. Open Cup Championship. It was apparent that fatigue was a factor in that 2-1 triumph over the New York Red Bulls as Sporting absorbed pressure and players’ body language showed tell-tale signs of weariness in the second half.

“I felt a little bit [fatigued],” said forward Diego Rubio. “… I don’t think the team felt it. I see my teammates all playing so hard all the time, especially defending.”

As Rubio put a positive spin on it, so does his manager, Peter Vermes, even after admitting that his team spent a lot of energy – physical and emotional – on the Open Cup tournament and final. A mindset to play Saturday-Wednesday-Saturday was established before the season began.

“But it’s the work that we did in the offseason and the preseason to get us prepared for playing the way we are – managing the two tournaments, the league and the U.S. Open Cup. It’s something that we thought about immensely as we were moving into this year,” Vermes stated “Now [the U.S. Open Cup] is all over with, and now we are focused on the league. So [being done] is a benefit.”

Veteran midfield destroyer and constant forward-moving-force at the center of Sporting Kansas City’s engine room, Honduran Roger Espinoza, believes fatigue is not, and has never been, a factor in Sporting’s past playoff standings and results.

“I think we are all fresh. We have used many players this year. I don’t think fatigue has been the reason in past years [for poor playoff seeding]; I think it has been injuries,” Espinoza stated, despite the fact that both wide attackers Gerso and Latif Blessing, as well as Rubio left the Open Cup Final with injuries. “So far, we’re good. If we keep all our core players in shape, we will be good to go into the playoffs.”

Rubio (quad) started and Gerso (shoulder separation) came on in the 2nd half Sunday in the 2-1 win over the LA Galaxy, with Rubio gaining an assist and a goal. But core veteran of the backline, Captain Matt Besler, had to exit due to a head injury in extra time. Blessing (leg soreness) was in the 18, but did not see the pitch. Injuries seem to be creeping up at the wrong time. Are they due to fatigue? To the increasing intensity of the matches? And what can combat that?

“I think we have something special in the team,” added Rubio. “We have 30 in the squad and every player can play in the team, and every player knows their role. You saw [Wednesday] when Salloi came in, he scored a goal and played good. Jimmy [Medranda] came into the game 2nd half, which is not easy, and he played very, very good.”

Is the depth and mix of the squad that helps provide the consistent rhythm that Vermes has focused on what will counteract any possible pitfalls and separate Sporting Kansas City circa 2017 from recent teams that dropped out in the first round of the playoffs on inhospitable pitches?

According to Espinoza, it is. Take parts veteran experience with all the mental battles that come in the stretch run and the playoffs and mix with youthful pieces to gain a better recipe.

“[The core veterans] have all been in that situation before,” said Espinoza. “And we have a lot of young guys who have a lot of energy, and that helps a lot with the guys that have experience.”

“We know what it takes to win a championship. Hopefully, all that experience and all the youth we have in the team comes in to play and we are able to put all that together and come out on top.”

It all sounds good. And things have come out well for Vermes and his charges. But much hinges on Saturday’s result against Vancouver, who just happens to be the last side to beat Sporting KC at home way back in September of 2016 in CONCACAF Champions League play. And there is another factor that could possibly derail Sporting Kansas City’s drive to home-field advantage in the playoffs and a hopeful deep run once they get there. Look for that story later this week, as well as for thoughts on Sporting KC’s possible dark horse in the fight.

What other factors could aid or derail Sporting Kansas City’s race for home-field advantage? Leave your comments below.