KANSAS CITY, Kan. – This time a year ago, Wizards manager Peter Vermes sounded like a broken record.
Mired in a debilitating slump, his team wasn’t battling for results and the players couldn’t muster the heart to fight for each other or the club's fading playoff hopes.
These days, however, Vermes is happily singing another tune.
Kansas City took a dramatic step toward cementing their newfound mental strength on Wednesday, defeating Houston 4-3 on a last-second goal and setting up a tantalizing matchup with FC Dallas at CommunityAmerica Ballpark on Saturday night.
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“Last year, [mentality] was what I was always talking about,” Vermes said. “This shows that these guys have the ability to come back, and that’s a great thing. When you get that feeling and you eventually accomplish it, you don’t forget it.”
Make no mistake, the Wizards won’t be forgetting about Wednesday’s victory anytime soon, even if they’ve already shifted their focus to a red-hot FCD side that hasn’t lost in a mind-boggling 16 games.
That streak, though, doesn’t even begin to rattle a squad that just keeps stringing together results in the face of adversity.
In addition to rallying back from a 3-1 deficit against the Dynamo, Kansas City accomplished something else they had never done this year: win after allowing the opening goal.
“Early in the season, when we went down a goal or two, we lost,” goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen said. “When we were down, we couldn’t change the game. But right now, we know we can change things even if we’re down.”
If the Wizards do find a way to sneak into the playoffs, they will likely look back at this week as the final step towards proving they are the genuine article.
In the last two months, Vermes’ team has won in nearly every way imaginable, toppling table-topping Los Angeles and Columbus away from home, winning handily against fellow postseason hopefuls and even logging a timeless victory against Manchester United.
“I think we’ve proven that we can win away, we can win games 1-0, we can win 2-1,” defender Jimmy Conrad said. “And if we are down two goals, you can’t sleep on us. That continues to give us confidence no matter what the situation is.”
Now, the Wizards’ challenge is keeping that confidence and momentum flowing through the end of the regular season to give themselves the opportunity to play for the MLS Cup.
Playoff-wise, the situation Kansas City find themselves in is encouraging, if still far from secure. A victory against Dallas would tie Kansas City with Seattle for the eighth and final playoff spot, setting up a frantic race to the finish. A loss or tie would be disheartening, but certainly not the end of the road.
But that pressure doesn’t worry Vermes or his players, whose new buzzword is belief.
“What’s grown the most is our mentality and character,” Vermes said.