KANSAS CITY, Kan. — It’s rare to hear the phrase “must win” uttered less than a third of the way into a season, but that’s the mantra circulating around Sporting Kansas City ahead of Livestrong Sporting Park’s grand opening on Thursday against the Chicago Fire.
This is not just another game. And if there was any doubt about that, Sporting Club CEO Robb Heineman is more than happy to put all that to rest.
“It’s a massive game,” Heineman said. “It’s the biggest game in the history of the franchise since we’ve owned it. It’s not MLS Cup. It’s not a US Open Cup final. But it’s right there, number three probably in the history of the franchise. We’ve got to win. Everybody knows that. It’s a big summer for us.”
Kansas City (1-6-3) will walk out the tunnel tonight for the first of 17 home games sitting squarely in last place in the Eastern Conference and possessing the lowest point total in the league: just six points from 10 games, all on the road.
It’s certainly not where they thought they would be at this point and probably not where they deserve to be either.
Sporting have dropped at least four points this season in heartbreaking fashion – drawing in Vancouver after leading 3-0 and losing 1-0 to Seattle in stoppage time – and likely would have gotten at least two more had they not been the victims of two questionable red cards in Chicago and New England.
But none of that matters now. Kansas City have 24 games to claw their way out of the basement. Fortunately, 17 of those are at home, starting tonight again a moribund Fire team that may be in even worse shape at the moment than Sporting.
The players know that, and they know the kind of opportunity that sits in front of them. This is a chance to open Livestrong Sporting Park with a bang. An opportunity to avenge one of their six defeats thus far and jumpstart their season. An opportunity to led a little swagger to a side in desperate need of a jolt of confidence.
Defender Michael Harrington was still recovering from a muscle strain the last time Sporting won in league play (March 19 against Chivas USA). And 82 days after that game, he and his teammates want to show the rest of the league that the team they’ve seen so far isn’t the same one that will take the field the rest of the season, especially at home.
“We want to make a statement,” Harrington said. “We’ve been waiting for this day, waiting for this day and waiting for this day while being on the road for so long. The intensity level is going to be high. We aren’t even going to have to say anything before the game. We all just know what has to happen.”
That goes for the coaching staff, too.
Manager Peter Vermes said he didn’t expect to have to say much in his pregame speech to his players in Sporting’s tricked-out new locker room. If anything, he said he’s had to rein the guys in this week to keep the moment from distracting them from the job at hand.
But that doesn’t mean he or his assistants are trying to downplay the importance of the match. Far from it in fact. Assistant coach Kerry Zavagnin said the magnitude of the occasion and the pressure that comes along with it will only bring out the best in the players. It’s what they play for at this level.
“We would be lying if we said it was just another game,” Zavagnin said. “We understand the moment. I think everyone has that optimism and energy building toward Thursday night. From an organizational standpoint, top to bottom, it is a very important day and very important game. I have no doubts that the guys will bring their ‘A’ game.”
That much goes unsaid. It may just be another a regular season game in the record books, but this match means so much more to the players, coaches and fans and owners who suffered through 15-plus years of temporary venues and uncertainty.
“Everybody can feel it,” captain Davy Arnaud said. “Everybody knows it. At the very least, our performance has to be right and our approach and attitude has to be right. If it is, the result will come for us.”
And if it does, 18,500 strong will be there to celebrate with them on an epic night for soccer in the Midwest.