As everyone can agree by now, nothing about the year 2020 has been normal.
It was perhaps prophetic, then, that defenders Matt Besler and Graham Zusi—two unmistakable faces of the Sporting Kansas City franchise and eternal club legends—were not on the field in the club’s wild playoff win over the San Jose Earthquakes on Nov. 22.
This was the first time in the decade-long history of Children’s Mercy Park that Besler and Zusi had missed a Sporting playoff game. Besler is currently working his way back from a concussion, while Zusi will miss the rest of the year with a foot injury.
Making his customary appearance on Sports Radio 810 WHB this morning, Besler remarked how unusual—and stressful—being a fan was as Sporting traded blows with San Jose.
“It was nerve-wracking to say the least,” Besler said. “I would have much rather been on the field, for sure. The atmosphere was great, although it wasn’t a packed stadium like we’ve had in years past. When I was driving home after the game, I sort of realized that I had witnessed another special night at Children’s Mercy Park and another great game in Sporting Kansas City history. I’ve been on the field for most of those nights, so this was the first game where I got to witness it from up in the stands.
“Graham and I actually sat together for the game, and man—I was nervous. Graham was calming me down, especially in the shootout. Graham looked over to me and said, ‘We have Tim Melia, you forgot about that.’ Sure enough, Timmy did his thing and pulled through for us.”
Besler, of course, was referring to the goalkeeping heroics of Tim Melia, who saved all three San Jose penalty kicks to give Sporting the shootout win following a 3-3 draw.
That result has propelled Manager Peter Vermes’ men into the Western Conference Semifinals, where they will host rivals Minnesota United FC at 7:31 p.m. CT Thursday in a primetime network television battle on FOX. Besler and Zusi will once again miss out on the action, but the 33-year-old center back is eyeing an imminent return if Sporting manages to beat Minnesota and progress to the conference finals against Seattle Sounders FC next Monday.
“I’m in concussion protocol and it’s pretty extensive with the steps you have to take to get back out on the field in a safe way,” Besler said. “I feel like I’ve really turned a corner in the last couple of days, so hopefully I can start progressing and go through all the steps that I need to get back on the field. That’s my goal—to be back on the field and help this team in any way that I can.
“In the playoffs, you never know what can happen with injuries, yellow card accumulation and situational subs. So my goal is to make myself available and help the team in any way that I can.”
Thursday will treat viewers to Sporting’s first primetime network television matchup in the playoffs—a highly anticipated matchup featuring two teams that are clicking on all cylinders. Sporting caught fire at the start of October and wound up with their fourth first-place conference finish since 2011, while Minnesota’s nine-game unbeaten run is the longest active streak in MLS. The Loons haven’t lost since Sept. 23.
“Traditionally we’ve matched up pretty well with Minnesota, especially at home, but we realize none of that matters in this game,” Besler said. “It’s a one-game playoff where anything can happen and we respect Minnesota a lot. We know how dangerous of a team they can be—they’re unbeaten in nine games which is the longest unbeaten streak in the league. They’re playing extremely well, we feel like we are playing well, and so it’s going to be a great matchup.
“Looking at the Minnesota team, they’re set up really well to make a run in the playoffs because of they way they set themselves up. They do a really good job getting into a defensive block and being tough to break down, which is very important in the playoffs. But then they go in they counter teams, and they have a ton of guys who are quick in transition. Emanuel Reynoso is their playmaker and one of the best players in the league right now. They get the ball to him and he makes things happen.”