C.J. Sapong, Teal Bunbury vs NYRB
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Playoffs clinched, Sporting sets sight on conference crown

All things considered, the last thing Sporting Kansas City wanted Saturday afternoon was drama.

That didn’t quite happen – Thierry Henry was shown a straight red card just 28 minutes into the match for violent conduct – but Kansas City still managed to lock up their first playoff spot since 2008 with a comprehensive 2-0 victory against New York.

Even more satisfying for Sporting was the fact that they clinched their playoff spot and moved into a tie for first place in the Eastern Conference at LIVESTRONG Sporting Park in front of 19,921 delighted fans, something they emphasized in the build-up to the match.

“The whole week we’ve just been saying that the future was in our hands because we were at home,” Kei Kamara said. “When you get that chance to make the playoffs, you definitely have to take it.”

Kansas City took it all right, dominating the Red Bulls from the opening whistle before Teal Bunbury and C.J. Sapong scored the all-important goals in the second half.

Now, instead of anxiously watching the scoreboard for other results and hoping things fall their way, Manager Peter Vermes and his team can relax with the knowledge that a victory against D.C. United next weekend will deliver the Eastern Conference title to Kansas City.

“We did it on our terms,” Vermes said. “We didn’t have to wait for someone else to lose and two teams to tie and all these other things. These guys did it. That’s the thing I’m most proud of.”

And, all told, the most impressive thing about Sporting becoming the fifth team in MLS to lock down a playoff spot wasn’t where they ended up but where they’ve come from.

After emerging from their 10-game road trip to start the season with a 1-6-3 record and the words “last place” cemented in front of their name, Kansas City went 11-3-9 once they were able to move into the comfortable confines of LSP.

And even though nobody was popping bottles in the home locker room or making too much of the occasion, the feeling from player to player was that this was their just reward after persevering through an up-and-down season.

Still, this was just the beginning of what Sporting hope is much more to come.

“We’re in the playoffs, and we’re happy about that,” Roger Espinoza said. “But now we want everything. If you want to win MLS Cup, you’ve got to go for the top.”

And as Espinoza pointed out, there is plenty to play for; namely a conference title and home-field advantage in the playoffs.

Though they are technically tied at the top of the East with Philadelphia on 48 points, Sporting Kansas City will know the requirements to win the East entering their next match on Saturday at D.C. United after seeing the Union’s result against the Red Bulls on Thursday.

That’s something the club could barely fathom back in May when nothing seemed to be going their way, but this is a much different team than it was then and one determined not to stop here.

“We’ve achieved one goal in getting to the playoffs,” Vermes said, “but the next one is to try to win the conference. It’s a new season from there.”