KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Sometimes perspective is hard to find when you’re mired at the bottom of the table. The losing streaks can seem endless and hope comes and goes as the lack of results from week to week take their toll.
Add a two-and-a-half month road trip to that mix, and context — as Sporting Kansas City are finding out — can often be pushed by the wayside as patience runs thin throughout the club and supporters and each match takes on more and more importance.
Seven games into a 2011 season that was billed as a sort of rebirth — new brand, colors, stadium and increased expectations — Sporting are starting to feel the pressure that a 1-5-1 start and disappointing play brings. With only three games left in their lengthy road trip before LIVESTRONG Sporting Park opens on June 9, SKC have just three chances remaining to bridge the growing gap between themselves and the rest of MLS.
In light of this, MLSsoccer.com has combed through the league record books and crunched the numbers to provide a little perspective to Sporting KC’s unenviable — but certainly not hopeless — situation to find out exactly what it will take to turn things around.
It hasn’t happened often, but two MLS teams have embarked on extended season-opening road trips in order to accommodate the construction of a new facility: the 2003 LA Galaxy and the 2006 Chicago Fire.
Surprisingly enough, both those squads made the MLS Cup Playoffs, though the circumstances were very different from the current situation Sporting face.
While waiting for the Home Depot Center to open, LA played their first eight games away from home in 2003, losing four and drawing four. Even without registering a victory during their time on the road, the Galaxy managed to sneak into the playoffs with a 9-12-9 record.
Of course, the caveat at that time was that the league only consisted of 10 teams, eight of which advanced to the postseason. LA finished ninth that year but advanced to the playoffs over Columbus by virtue of conference affiliation despite earning fewer points. The situation is hardly comparable, though, given that this year 10 teams out of a field of 18 make the playoffs.
Chicago, on the other hand, took 10 points from their first nine games in 2006 as the finishing touches were being put on Toyota Park, concluding their road trip with a 2-3-4 record and playing out the rest of the season at 11-8-4 to finish on 47 points.
Like the Galaxy, though, the playoff field was slightly more diluted in 2006 than it will be in 2011, with eight of 12 teams advancing to the postseason. Chicago finished fifth overall in the league that season and also won the US Open Cup.
So while the numbers and context of each situation don’t match up exactly with Sporting’s, the overriding message from the past is that recovery from a rough start is difficult but not impossible. It simply requires a significant improvement in form to accomplish.
Sporting’s situation with 27 games left to play
Perhaps the most important thing to take away from Kansas City’s current slide is that they certainly aren’t the only team in MLS that has struggled mightily on the road this year.
After nearly two months of play, MLS teams have won only 15 times on the road in 86 games. More specifically, the Eastern Conference is 4-22-15 on the road in 41 away games, taking an average of 0.66 points per contest.
To put those numbers in the proper context, Sporting currently are averaging 0.57 points per match. Although their form has been admittedly poor of late, those numbers don’t take into consideration the fact that Peter Vermes’ side could, as unlikely as it may be, collect up to nine points from their final three games before LIVESTRONG Sporting Park opens its doors.
To accomplish that and, eventually, have a chance at reaching the playoffs, Kansas City must turn things around on the field similarly to LA’s and Chicago’s cases in 2003 and ‘06. The real question is, how much better will they have to be?
One advantage Vermes and his players will have is the fact that 10 teams will make the playoffs this season instead of eight from last year, leaving at least some breathing room for teams that go through rough patches.
Based on the final standings from the 2007-10 seasons, averaged and extrapolated to fit a 34-game season, the two teams that finish seventh and eighth overall in 2011 should have somewhere close to 47 points while the ninth- and 10th-place finishers will have around 43. That means that, at the very least, SKC must earn 39 points from the 81 still available to have a chance at a playoff berth.
Can Sporting turn things around?
Times are tough, but all is not lost just yet.
Though Sporting Kansas City certainly haven’t played anywhere close to their own expectations, all that could easily be forgotten should the team find its form and turn in an above-average performance the rest of the season — a tough assignment as the Gold Cup guts Sporting’s roster and the schedule becomes more packed to make up for lost time.
Sporting must perform over their final 27 games and hope that is enough. With an expanded playoff field and 17 of their final 27 games coming at home, an epic recovery could very well be in the cards.