It’s not like they don’t know. Winless in five straight MLS matches. Only two wins in June and July total. Falling from 1st to 5th place in the Western Conference, to the place where, once again, the first playoff game is a one-off, away from home. Perhaps Sporting Kansas City was too comfortable with being at or near the top of the Western Conference (and the Supporter’s Shield standings) much of the season. But no matter the cause… they know.
“We shouldn’t be in this situation,” said winger Gerso Fernandes.
“We know what we need to do,” said center back Ike Opara.
And they also know that, sometimes, you just have to get away to combat or avert possible mental and physical fatigue, as over training and over motivation can wear.
“We have to, at times, lighten up just because of how hectic and busy and frustrating this league and this sport can be,” said Opara. “You will go stir-crazy if you never have time to appreciate the finer – and funner – things in life.”
And the Sporting Kansas City players, from 1-27, know that when Opara enters the locker room or lounge, things are about to get crazy fun.
“I’m the biggest, I wouldn’t even say ‘antagonist’ in such a bad way, but I like to get guys and really keep it light with jokes or extreme hypotheticals that will never happen, just get guys involved,” said Opara. “We have many different backgrounds, but we all understand some of the same jokes.”
Most of the time together off the field or training pitch for the players is spent, of course, in the locker room or lounge at Pinnacle or Children’s Mercy Park.
Gentle chiding and humorous banter dominate, like the back-and-forth stick between wingers Johnny Russell and Daniel Salloi, while friendly, yet intense competition comes in the form of spirited ping-pong matches or the loud excitement of a player nearing victory playing Fortnite. They are just a bunch of boys at heart.
“Wherever we are together, we are ready to do something funny and have a good time,” Gerso said, while adding that they do discuss situations in the world as well.
Although when it comes time for training the players know “to lock it in” and do “what we need to do to help us get a result on the weekend,” as Opara stated, the monotony of training needs broken up as well.
“You can change up training and still [stay] within your micro-cycle, but do different things that can achieve the same goal. Sometimes you can play soccer tennis. Sometimes you can do different things for regeneration or what have you, like go in the pool. Now we have access to things like that we never had in the past. That helps a lot,” said Vermes, referencing Pinnacle’s amenities.
Games like soccer-tennis (see Felipe Gutierrez’s recent bicycle kick winner here) and the always competitive one-touch keep-away games are popular. But not as looked forward to as playing the favorite 5v2 or 6v2 the last day of training before a match. Mostly, the boys just enjoy playing the game they love.
“It’s as simple as that,” Gerso confirmed.
“Sometimes you also just have to accept the fact that [the monotony] is part of the grind you are in,” Vermes observed. “You have to be mentally tough to navigate that as well. It’s not always easy, especially for younger guys or guys that are coming out of college that have never been through this – the length of the season and all this. Then some of the foreign players who have never had to deal with the travel and climates that these players have to play in.”
Thus, a change of scenery is sometimes needed. Two weeks ago, the side was granted four days off after their 4-2 ouster in the U.S. Open Cup Quarterfinals at Houston Dynamo because of a break in the schedule.
Vermes made sure the players were aware of the coming break, so they could plan a literal getaway.
“Just because you give the time off, if you are still basically here, it doesn’t change the scenery and your mindset. That is a help,” Vermes stated.
Some went on a brief vacation. Some took care of necessary business. And one, Gerso, got married. The break definitely had its dividends.
“Guys were able to clear their heads,” said Opara. “The [next] game [a 3-2 home loss to first-place FC Dallas] didn’t necessarily show it result-wise, but you could see the positive effects it had on a lot of guys.”
To properly deal with them, setbacks must be viewed as temporary events. Consequently, Sporting Kansas City must now focus on the playoff drive and that four-year elusive home first-round playoff match (guaranteed by a 4th-place finish) or the more desired first-round bye and two-game home advantage afforded by a minimum 2nd-place finish in the West. Fifty points for the former and 53 for the latter were needed in 2017. Sporting KC sits at 33 points with 13 matches left (7 away, 6 home) with six games against current playoff teams and only one midweek match mixed in the weekend-dominate schedule.
“We think and we talk about [the current winless streak] because we have a team that is very good. We shouldn’t be in this situation,” reflected Gerso. “Now we have to be together as a team and as a family and keep working. We know we are capable, and we have quality and skills in our team to go over this situation.”
“Every player who has played in this league has been through this type of thing. Almost every season, you have it. Almost every team has it in every season. I don’t know of any team that never really hasn’t had it in MLS in any year,” said Vermes. “The biggest thing is that you have to realize that it only changes because you work to make it change. It doesn’t change just because someone says its going to. Our guys know that. You have to keep working towards it. You have to face it head on...”
A focus on long-term goals only is not the answer either. And last Saturday’s match, though a loss, was progress in the short-term. Mistakes beget easy goals. But Vermes and the players feel their play was much “closer to who we are,” aided by the return from injury of midfield do-it-all Gutierrez and Opara and fellow center back and team captain Matt Besler. The trio, though, are experiencing soreness as they get back to fitness.
Like return from injury, performance progress, as an individual or a team, is done in process. Focus on the now, the process, not the outcome. Outcome goals are necessary. Process goals are critical.
“The only thing we do now as we go through a rough patch is pay attention to details… We are all very professional. We all come each-and-every day to work…,” Opara pointed. “The guys in the locker room, we know what we need to do, and our preparation has to carry over to the 90 minutes of the game. That’s where we’ve been lacking.”
There was a team meeting just before training on Tuesday, likely a routine thing. But the team is unified and they have decided something as a group.
“We have upped the intensity [of training] again… we understand where we are at this point in the year, and we understand what the last couple of months have been like, so we are upping it,” continued Opara. “We’ve decided we’re going for it. And whatever happens, happens. That mindset has been very refreshing. The players and the staff [have said] ‘We’re gonna shoot our shot.’ And we will see where it goes.”
It’s not like Sporting Kansas City doesn’t know the history of the past two months, or the past four years, or that there are high expectations from fans who thirst to drink from MLS Cup again.
There is no Open Cup to win, and to possibly to take away from MLS matches. At least one reinforcement is coming in the transfer window that closes August 8, as players, including backs Jimmy Medranda and Brad Evans and forward Khiry Shelton continue to work back from injuries.
As is the case within any league, finishing strong is very often key to playoff success. Is Sporting Kansas City a sleeping giant ready to rise after a sinking? The answer comes in the process at training. And in the outcomes of weeks and months to come.