Peter Vermes has no regrets about the way his club's season ended. Well, one – and it's probably not the one you think.
Sporting Kansas City's manager wasn't upset with the series of misses that doomed his club in the penalty-kicks phase of Thursday night's Audi 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs Knockout Round match at Portland. After winning three trophies as Sporting's manager – all on penalties – he knows well enough how titles can be won or lost from the spot by a matter of inches.
But the fact that Sporting, who trailed 1-0 with three minutes to go in regulation, were up 2-1 with just two minutes left in extra time before surrendering Maxi Urruti's equalizer is something Vermes won’t soon forget.
“I think that's the only thing we'll be kicking ourselves about,” Vermes said. “We gave up an easy play in the corner. That's probably the only thing.”
On the play, substitute Dairon Asprilla was able to take the throw-in, turn between his defender and the end line, and cross to Urruti for a volley past substitute goalkeeper Jon Kempin from close range.
Vermes, who called it “a really silly second goal” and “too easy” in his post-match news conference, was a bit kinder to his squad in a conference call with Kansas City media members.
“We should have been a little better,” he said. “But that's experience. It reminds you – I shouldn't say it's experience. You make a mistake, and you learn from it, and I think we're going to learn from that one.”
That mistake aside, Vermes was quick to praise his squad's effort in the rest of the match.
“I think our performance, execution, everything was fantastic,” he said during the call. “I really do. I think the effort, the ability to play away from home and take this game to 120 minutes and PKs was huge by them. Great performance. They have nothing to be down about, other than the fact that we're not moving on. They worked hard in the game, to come from 1-0 down and go up 2-1.”
Sporting did it with a lineup that looked nothing at all like Vermes envisioned when the season began.
Kempin, who made three saves in the penalty stage after coming on late in regulation for the injuredTim Melia, started the year on loan to the NASL's San Antonio Scorpions. He was only recalled when former No. 1 Luis Marin went home to Chile after losing his starting job to Melia – a former pool goalkeeper who enjoyed a breakout season after taking over.
Homegrown center back Kevin Ellis was supposed to revert to his natural fullback position this year, only to be forced back inside when Ike Opara went down in March with a season-ending Achilles rupture. Despite giving up all kinds of height, the 5-foot-9 Ellis led all MLS defenders with four regular-season goals and added another in the 87th minute on Thursday night to send the match to extra time.
And Vermes, who hadn't played a rookie extensively since C.J. Sapong's Rookie of the Year season in 2011, wound up using all three of his MLS SuperDraft picks heavily this season. Two of them, Amadou Dia and Saad Abdul-Salaam, went all 120 minutes at the fullback spots against the Timbers because of hamstring injuries to veterans Seth Sinovic and Chance Myers, with Abdul-Salaam coming heartbreakingly close to winning the shootout for SKC.
“They did a fantastic job, both guys,” Vermes said. “They played very well, got locked into the game. I can't say enough about what those guys have done.”
And while their fifth straight postseason trip ended in the Knockout Round for the second year in a row, Sporting still will play in the 2016-17 CONCACAF Champions League after winning the US Open Cup earlier this year – not that that was much consolation on Thursday night.
“We won the US Open Cup, great, but that was over with,” Vermes said during his news conference. “It’s done with. We were in pursuit of now an MLS Cup. There’s no doubt that we’re going to be very disappointed in the fact that we didn’t move on. I think we did enough to do that but at the same time we didn’t finish at the end and that’s the way it goes sometimes.
“We’ll learn from it and move on, and those experiences are good too. It helps you grow as a team, as a club and as individual players too.”
Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com.