Sporting Kansas City has hit what is probably the most adversity they’ve had so far this season over the past week. Over the last week, Kansas City has gone 0-2-1 in three games and seen themselves fall from first place in the Western Conference all the way to third behind FC Dallas and Los Angeles FC. The recent run of form has caused many to speculate and be concerned that Sporting has hit the time of the year where they start their yearly slide from the top of the conference to barely holding a playoff spot. It’s a trend that has been haunting KC since right after their MLS Cup run in 2013. In the four years since then the team has gone on a slide down the stretch that has seen them get into the playoffs but end up on the road where they’ve suffered four straight defeats.
Over the last four years when you look back at the end of the season there’s usually one or two key moments that really were the starting point of the slide. In 2017 home draws in early July against Portland and Philadelphia were followed by the trade of Dom Dwyer, defeating Chicago 3-2 in the first game after the trade, and not acquiring another forward before the window closed. KC won just three of their final 12 games, scoring just 12 goals. Scoring was an issue all season for the club, but it really failed KC down the stretch. In 2016, it seemed to start with a 3-0 loss to Portland on August 7th. KC won three of their final nine games (3-2-4) and had four Champions League games in there as well (where KC went 1-2-1). The 2015 season seemed to start to spiral after the club’s dramatic comeback win over Vancouver. KC won just three of their final 12 after that (3-7-2), including losing 5-0 at home to the San Jose Earthquakes one game after the Vancouver game. The timing of that streak also corresponded with the loss of Roger Espinoza for the season to injury (his last game had been two league games before the Vancouver game, on August, 1st). The streak all started in 2014 when after a four game win streak, KC drew 1-1 with the Philadelphia Union at home on August 1st. KC proceeded to lose eight of their final 12, going 3-8-1.
One thing right that should give some fans hope that the skid hasn’t started is the fact that three of the four skids seemed to start with 12 games left, KC doesn’t hit that point until their first trip to play LAFC on August 11th.
Another commonality between the four prior seasons is that Kansas City has always been distracted in their late season run by games in other competitions, in 2014 and 2016 KC had Champions League games on their schedule late in the season that they had to balance with along with league games. In 2015 and 2017 it was US Open Cup runs that pulled Sporting away from league play. KC is currently still alive in the US Open Cup this year, looking to continue their defense on the road against Houston on July 18th.
Now I’ll never fault the team for trying to win trophies and paint the wall (I even ask for it every year when I do my wishes for the new year), but if there was a year to “punt” the Open Cup for KC, this might be it. While it’d be great to be the first modern team to win five Open Cups (tying Bethlehem Steel and Maccabi Los Angeles for the most all time), to add another year to the championship wall, and for the players to get the bonus for winning the cup, there’s no extra benefit for KC for winning this year. KC has already qualified for next year’s Champions League because they won the 2018 Open Cup (with the change of the format of the Champions League, the USA’s four participants come from the 2018 and 2019 seasons). While there are still the previously mentioned awards for winning again this year, the team and fans seem to be getting frustrated with the lack of playoff success over the last few years. Bowing out of the Open Cup this year, while it would hurt, could be something that would help in the long run as it would cut down on the number of games KC would be playing down the stretch.
With the history of KC’s slide out of the way, the question is now whether KC has started their slide this year. On the surface that certainly feels like they are. The club has gone 0-2-1 in their last three games, and similar to the 2015 run, it seemed to start after a big comeback win, this time the 3-2 win over the Houston Dynamo. Like the win over the Whitecaps in 2015, KC came back from a two goal deficit to defeat their Western Conference opponent. The injury issues that KC is suffering through this year aren’t a new thing for the club either; in 2014 the club lost Ike Opara and Chance Myers to injuries. In 2015 Opara again along with Espinoza while 2017 saw the team lose Tim Melia in the middle of his goalkeeper of the year season. This year, the club has lost the highest paid player in club history, Felipe Gutierrez, for all but six of their 21 games and just when he appears set to come back, they’ll lose Khiry Shelton until at least September, if not longer. This year though feels a little different on the injury front in that Gutierrez is well on his way back and should play a role in the stretch run this season unlike those previously mentioned.
The other thing to remember is that in MLS, most teams have a period of struggle in a season, even in 2013 when Sporting won MLS Cup, they had a stretch where the team struggled, coincidently enough, it was around the same time as all their other streaks seemed to start, in late July/early August. KC won just one league game in five, falling 1-0 at Montreal, 3-2 to New York before defeating New England at home 3-0. This was followed up by two more losses, 1-0 at San Jose and 1-0 at Chicago. KC bounced back from that streak though to win six of their final eight. And they did it while also competing in the 2013-2014 Champions League at the time.
The question that will need answered is whether this team will rebound from their down period like they did in 2013 or let it start to spiral as it seems to have been doing over the last four years. The team has enough experienced players that have played through this to know how to. Unlike in prior years where they’ve had to throw untested players “into the fire” later in the season, they’ve been able to get players like Jaylin Lindsey, Wan Kuzain Wan Kamal, and even Graham Smith time so that hopefully if they’re called on again in the stretch run they’re more comfortable with the opportunity. Combined that with the return of Gutierrez and one would hope that the result will end of differently this time.