Pressure on Sporting KC to remain on top of tight East

KANSAS CITY, Kan. – No offense to San Jose, but Sporting Kansas City are approaching Saturday’s game against the Earthquakes as a means to an end.

For the first time since 2004, Sporting find themselves in poll position as the regular season winds down, perched just one point clear of the Philadelphia Union all alone in first place in the Eastern Conference on 44 points.

Kansas City aren’t content to see their names at the top of the table for just one week, though, and that’s where the Earthquakes and the three points at stake on Saturday at Buck Shaw Stadium come into play (10:30 pm ET, watch LIVE  online).

“It’s too small of a cushion,” Omar Bravo said through an interpreter. “For this to last, we need to win on Saturday. We must win. Everything is just too close.”

So close, in fact, that Bravo and his teammates could still win all three of their remaining games (at San Jose, New York and at D.C. United) and still end up in second place in the conference.

Of course, Philadelphia would have to win all four of their remaining contests for that scenario to play out, but it’s certainly not inconceivable, and there are plenty of other teams waiting in the wings to take advantage of any slip-ups.

That puts the pressure squarely on Sporting’s shoulders, a situation that is relatively new to the vast majority of manager Peter Vermes’ youthful roster after two barren years that ended far short of postseason consideration. 

Still, that relative inexperience doesn’t necessarily mean Kansas City are coming in without a frame of reference.

All things considered, defender Matt Besler said the team understands that first place will be on the line each time they step on the field and that there will undoubtedly be some table shuffling right down to the wire no matter how well they perform.

“There are going to be a lot of teams that [will making a push] in the next three weeks,” he said. “We might be playing for first a couple times.”

The first of those comes against the Earthquakes, a side Sporting defeated 1-0 at Livestrong Sporting Park on June 17 and who will be looking for a morale boost with the playoffs only a distant goal at this point.

A victory would keep Sporting in first place in the East for another week at least. That’s more than enough motivation for a side that’s eager to hold onto the top spot after spending all summer earning it.

“[Columbus] was a huge win to get us in this place,” Graham Zusi said. “Now, we have to protect it. It’s going to be a tough game on the road against San Jose, and we need a result.”

Espinoza questionable against San Jose

Prior to SKC’s midweek victory against the Crew, Roger Espinoza hadn’t missed a start for anything but suspension since late June.

He could very well miss his second-straight contest on Saturday, however, as the left quad strain that kept Espinoza in street clothes against Columbus could count him out against San Jose as well. He is listed as questionable on the injury report and will likely sit should Vermes have any doubts about his health. 

Espinoza was replaced in the lineup by Davy Arnaud, who, in Wednesday’s 2-1 victory, played 77 minutes in his first start in three months.

“It just didn’t seem right to push it [against the Crew],” Vermes said. “We’ll reevaluate and decide whether or no he can [play against] San Jose. When it comes to muscle strains, I’m just not going to put a guy in harm’s way. We’ve got to make sure he’s 100 percent before he gets back out on the field.”