Sporting Kansas City are in an unprecedented position for this group of players, and for the club under Peter Vermes’ tenure, as they sit five points out of a playoff spot in July.
But after a bad loss to LAFC last Wednesday, Sporting showed a major sign of life in their 1-0 win over the Chicago Fire last Saturday.
“I think anybody that’s familiar with our team will probably walk away from that game saying, ‘That looked like a Sporting Kansas City game,’” Sporting captain Matt Besler told MLSsoccer.com.
Before entering the semifinal round of the Concacaf Champions League in the spring, Sporting were high on their level of fitness, how injury free they had been, and their ability to potentially compete at the highest level on all fronts. Then it all came crashing down.
After defeating the Montreal Impact 7-1 on March 30, they were thrashed in the semifinal round of the Champions League by eventual champion Monterrey. Sporting didn’t win again until May 26, almost two whole months without coming out on top. In the middle of it all, almost every single player in the squad missed some time with an injury, and in multiple matches they weren’t even able to field a full 18.
Fast forward to July 1 and Sporting were sitting at the bottom of the Western Conference, a mile away from where they have wanted, or expected themselves to be in. Saturday’s performance however, was a sign of life. It was a return of who they were and while Besler acknowledged there are still things to work on, the performance as a whole was still largely positive.
“We were able to control the game,” said Besler. “[We] controlled possession, we were smart with the ball and it just makes the game easier for us. Because when we’re not in control and we’re going back and forth and we’re losing the ball, it makes it difficult and you start giving things away.”
Sporting defender Graham Zusi returned to the lineup on Saturday night, as Sporting have begun to return to themselves. He mused as to what the key to their success was.
“I think a lot of our success in the past has been about that patience going forward and being that possession-oriented team to break teams down slowly or quickly or however it was, but always being good with the ball. When we’re patient it allows us to get up the field as a whole group, and if we lose it in those situations, that we’re in very good spots to win it back as well. That’s been something we’ve been very good at in the past, and I think maybe this year not as good at.“
Patience. It was something Besler, Zusi and Vermes all felt will be a significant key in their return to “who they are.”
“I think that when you have the ball, if you have the ability to keep the ball, usually it’s because you have good positional allocation on the field,” Vermes said. "That in turn, allows you to defend appropriately and in a good shape that’s balanced. And we did that well. We kept possession through the whole game.”
In reality, they know it’s only one game. When you’re as far down as they have been this year, one game doesn’t help. Sporting have yet to win back to back games in MLS play this year. Besler acknowledged that the precedent set by teams like Seattle in the past, who went from far down in the standings to an MLS Cup berth two years in a row, gives them hope that their unusual situation can turn out the same.
“I think generally we’re aware that there are teams that have come back, and there are teams that have never quite figured it out and it never clicked for them and it ended up being a lost season,” Besler said.
Avoiding a lost season. Is that the fear of Sporting at this moment? Not quite.
“There’s really two things that are going to happen,” Besler said. “Either we go on a run and are a factor in the playoffs, or we don’t. If we don’t ever go on a run and we’re just kind of puddling along, at some point, we’re not going to be in playoff contention and Peter’s probably going to have to play different guys, and get guys different looks. We’re certainly not there right now, but that’s a possibility. But the other possibility is we start getting everyone back, we start getting results, and we start climbing the standings and go on a run.”
Sporting are now looking at the healthiest they’ve been since the start of the season. Long-term absences Jaylin Lindsey and Rodney Wallace were the only two who weren’t able to participate in practice on Tuesday. As they start to get their guys back, Besler hopes the competition for spots helps elevate the team’s level.
A return to what looked like themselves on Saturday, combined with the added health back into the squad, has Sporting primed for a run, and they believe it.
“You know,” Besler mused, “I would love to see us go up against anybody when we have everyone on the field and we’re playing our best.”