SKC set Shield talk aside, focus on sealing playoff berth

Peter Vermes (SKC - CHI)

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. – For all the talk of chasing the Supporters' Shield, or at least winning a second straight Eastern Conference regular-season title, Sporting Kansas City face a more immediate challenge: Sewing up a playoff spot in the tightly-bunched East.

“We play for the playoffs,” forward Kei Kamara told MLSsoccer.com after Thursday's training session. “No matter the other accomplishments in between, you play to get to the playoffs. Once you get there, it's a different story, no matter if you're in first place or last. It's just about getting in there.”

Three teams have already qualified in the Western Conference – but none in the East, where only 10 points separate first-place Sporting from sixth-place Columbus. Sporting can lock up a berth, though, with a win at home on Friday against second-place Chicago (8:30 pm ET, NBCSN, live chat on MLSsoccer.com).

“That was one of our goals going into the season,” manager Peter Vermes said at Thursday's weekly news conference. “I think that's why this is a big game to us. We've got to win this game to make the playoffs first. Then, once we do that, then we'll start going after the other things that are at least achievable.”

And with the Fire only two points back, with a game in hand, a win would also give Sporting some breathing room atop the East table.

“It would have been nice to have a nice cushion,” center back Matt Besler said on Tuesday. “But we had a feeling it was going to be close – maybe not this close, with that many teams all right there. But that makes it exciting for the fans. Every game is important, and we realize that.”

Of the four teams remaining on Sporting's schedule, three – the Fire, the Crew and New York – still have postseason aspirations. Only the Philadelphia Union, Kansas City's final regular-season opponent, are out of the picture.

That late slate and the league's parity, Vermes said, make it important to sew up a playoff spot sooner rather than later. He's confident in their ability to do just that.

“There's not a team in the league that we fear,” he said, “but we have the utmost respect for every team that we play against, because we know how close every team is. Then it's a matter of how well you're prepared and how well you execute. Those are the two things that I most put my faith in, because I think our team is prepared, and I think our guys have shown on a consistent basis that they're going to execute.”

Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com.