Beyond the Box Score presented by Compass Minerals: Peter Vermes and Sporting seal first place on historic Decision Day

"Beyond The Box Score" is a weekly series presented by Compass Minerals that takes a statistical dive into every Sporting match, bringing to light the intriguing numbers and factoids that don't appear in the typical box score. To visit the series archive, click here.


It only felt fitting that the final chapter of Sporting Kansas City's wild and unprecedented 2020 MLS regular season campaign would take place on the snow-blanketed pitch of a fierce rival.

After busting out of the gates with two convincing wins before the pandemic, resuming play at the one-of-a-kind MLS is Back Tournament in Walt Disney World and continuing the campaign with a breathless run of autumn matches in home markets, Sporting had their sights set on finishing the regular season at the summit of the Western Conference on MLS Decision Day 2020 presented by AT&T.

The stakes were high for Manager Peter Vermes' men—decidedly higher for them than for an RSL side already eliminated from postseason contention—but the visitors rose to the occasion by securing a 2-0 victory and a No. 1 seed heading into the Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs later this month.

Khiry Shelton provided the breakthrough with a scrappy goal on the brink of halftime, Erik Hurtado doubled the advantage three minutes into his second-half cameo and goalkeeper Tim Melia posted his third straight shutout, helping Sporting punctuate one of the finest bounce-back seasons the league has ever seen.

In 2019, Vermes and Sporting saw their club-record eight-year playoff streak come to an end after an 11th-place finish in the West and a 22nd-place finish in the Supporters' Shield table. One year later, Sporting has pulled off the largest year-over-year improvement in Major League Soccer's 25-year history with a jump from 11th to first in the West and 22nd to third in the Shield race.

SUPPORTERS’ SHIELD STANDINGS: BIGGEST YEAR-OVER-YEAR IMPROVEMENTS

Spots Club Seasons Places
18 Sporting Kansas City 2019 to 2020 21st to 3rd
17 Colorado Rapids 2015 to 2016 19th to 2nd
17 Chicago Fire 2016 to 2017 20th to 3rd
17 Orlando City SC 2019 to 2020 22nd to 5th
16 D.C. United 2013 to 2014 19th to 3rd
16 Columbus Crew SC 2019 to 2020 20th to 4th

Sporting's momentous achievement was a fitting reward for the adversity and unpredictability that players and coaches faced over the course of the year. The 2020 regular season had the earliest start date on Feb. 29, the latest end date on Nov. 8, and required clubs to start and stop no less than three times in between. When Vermes reflected on the accomplishment after the match, he indicated that a first-place finish in the West and homefield advantage in the playoffs was incredibly deserved.

"Unfortunately, the year didn’t go as planned but we stayed the course and we stayed true to who we are," Vermes said. "We remained loyal and committed to our culture. And we believed. This has been a tough year, but for us to be able to achieve first place in the West based on the circumstances - it was incredibly difficult. And then when things changed to points per game and then we had games cancelled, it’s easy for the guys to have mentally checked out in certain situations. They found a way each time."

For Vermes specifically, Sunday's snowy encounter on the cliffs of the Wasatch Mountains—which gave Sporting their first league win at Rio Tinto Stadium since 2013—offered a prompt reminder of his consistency over the last decade.

Over the last 10 seasons, Vermes has won an MLS Cup, three Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cups and finished first in the conference standings on four occasions. No other MLS coach has more than two first-place conference finishes during that time.

MLS HEAD COACHES: FIRST-PLACE CONFERENCE FINISHES SINCE 2011

Head Coach Club Finishes Seasons
Peter Vermes Sporting Kansas City 4 2011, 2012, 2018, 2010
Oscar Pareja FC Dallas 2 2015, 2016
Jesse Marsch New York Red Bulls 2 2015, 2016
Caleb Porter Portland Timbers 2 2013, 2017

Sunday's pressure-packed scenario was hardly new for Vermes and Sporting. In the last decade, Sporting has entered their regular season finale playing for first place five times—in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2018 and 2020. Vermes' men emerged victorious in all five games and took first place in each of those years except for 2013.

SPORTING KC WITH FIRST PLACE UP FOR GRABS
(REGULAR SEASON FINALES UNDER PETER VERMES)

Date Opponent Result Conference Finish
10/22/2011 at D.C. United W 1-0 1st
10/24/2012 vs. Philadelphia Union W 2-1 1st
10/26/2013 at Philadelphia Union W 2-1 2nd
10/28/2018 vs. LAFC W 2-1 1st
11/08/2020 at Real Salt Lake W 2-0 1st

Just over a month ago, Sporting's outlook for finishing first was murky at best. The club was in the midst in a 1-4-2 slump and had suffered back-to-back home losses against FC Dallas and Orlando City SC.

As the calendar turned to October, however, the flip switched emphatically. Sporting went 6-1-1 to end the season, and the only two games in which they dropped points—a 1-0 loss at FC Dallas and a 2-2 draw at Chicago Fire FC—were mired in controversy.

Take a closer look, and it becomes evident that Sporting has been among the best MLS teams during the most important stretch of the season. Their six wins, 19 points, four shutouts and 0.63 goals against average are all the best marks in MLS since the start of October.

SPORTING KC SINCE THE START OF OCTOBER
(2020 MLS REGULAR SEASON)

Stat Total MLS Rank
Wins 6 t-1st
Losses 1 2nd
Points 19 t-1st
Shutouts 4 t-1st
Goals per game 1.75 6th
Goals allowed per game 0.63 1st

Another key trait that fed Sporting's regular season success was the club's form away from home. Vermes' side posted a 5-2-2 record in nine true road matches, the best in MLS. Only three other clubs collected as many away wins throughout the regular season.

MOST ROAD WINS DURING THE 2020 MLS REGULAR SEASON

Club Road Wins Away Record Finish
Sporting Kansas City 5 5-2-2 1st in West
Colorado Rapids 5 5-3-1 5th in West
Toronto FC 5 5-3-2 2nd in East
New England Revolution 5 5-4-1 8th in East

Add it all up, and you get one of Sporting's best regular seasons ever. In fact, Sporting's 1.857 points per game in 2020 is the best clip in Kansas City history

SPORTING KC: MOST POINTS PER GAME IN CLUB HISTORY
(MLS REGULAR SEASON)

Season
Points
Games
PPG
Outcome
2020
39
21
1.857
TBD
2012
63
34
1.853
Lost in Conference Semifinals
2018
62
34
1.824
Lost in Conference Finals
2000
57
32
1.781
Won MLS Cup
2013
58
34
1.706
Won MLS Cup

"This year’s been about adaptability and this team, we came together from day one and then having to go into quarantine, then coming out of quarantine and playing in Orlando," Shelton said after the game. "We’ve adapted and we’ve adapted really well. Everyone was focused and we remained focused."

Shelton, of course, played a big role in Sunday's win by putting Sporting ahead in the 45th minute. Hurtado doubled the lead three minutes into the second frame, continuing a scoring trend that has come to define Sporting in 2020.

By bagging their fifth goals of the season this weekend, Shelton and Hurtado became the fourth and fifth Sporting players to score at least five times in 2020. This marks the fifth time ever in which Sporting has had five different players tally five goals in a single regular season.

Shelton and Hurtado finished one behind a three-way tie for the team lead, as Alan Pulido, Gadi Kind and Johnny Russell notched six apiece.

SPORTING KC: FIVE PLAYERS WITH FIVE GOALS IN THE SAME SEASON
(MLS REGULAR SEASON)

Season Players
1997 Preki 12, Mark Chung 10, Digital Takawira 8, Mo Johnston 6, Frank Klopas 5
2005 Josh Wolff 10, Scott Sealy 9, Chris Klein 7, Sash Victorine 7, Davy Arnaud 5
2011 Kei Kamara 9, Teal Bunbury 9, Omar Bravo 9, Graham Zusi 5, C.J. Sapong 5
2018 Daniel Salloi 11, Johnny Russell 10, Diego Rubio 8, Felipe Gutierrez 7, Gerso Fernandes 5
2020 Alan Pulido 6, Gadi Kinda 6, Johnny Russell 6, Khiry Shelton 5, Erik Hurtado 5

The late stages of Sunday's battle were largely routine as Sporting comfortably saw out the 2-0 result. In the 76th minute, however, grizzled veteran Roger Espinoza hit a major milestone by eclipsing 20,000 regular season minutes in his MLS career. Espinoza is the fifth Kansas City player to log 20,000 regular season minutes, joining longtime teammates Matt Besler and Graham Zusi as well as current assistant coach Kerry Zavagnin and retired defender Nick Garcia.

20,000 REGULAR SEASON MINUTES FOR SPORTING KC

Player Minutes Games Seasons
Matt Besler 25,501 294 2009-2020
Graham Zusi 23,075 294 2009-2020
Kerry Zavagnin 20,515 237 2000-2008
Nick Garcia 20,157 224 2000-2007
Roger Espinoza 20,014 253 2008-2012, 2015-2020

With an excellent regular season campaign in the books, Sporting has earned homefield advantage in the West going into the highly anticipated Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs. Vermes' men will host the No. 8 seed San Jose Earthquakes in the single-game conference quarterfinals on Nov. 21, 22 or 24 at Children’s Mercy Park. An exact date and kickoff time for the fixture will be announced in the near term.

Sporting KC Season Ticket Members will have exclusive access to a presale for the match starting Tuesday at 10 a.m. CT. Tickets will then go on sale to the general public beginning Thursday at noon CT.

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