KANSAS CITY, Mo. – It may sound horribly clichéd, but every match the rest of the way might as well be the biggest game of the season for Sporting Kansas City.
As in matches against D.C. United, Dallas and LA in weeks past, Sporting find another opportunity Saturday afternoon to make a significant move in up the Eastern Conference table with a victory against the visiting Houston Dynamo (4 pm ET, Telefutura).
Three points would pull Kansas City (9-8-10) even with Columbus at the top of the conference, while anything less would leave Houston (8-8-11) within striking distance with six crucial games remaining for each side.
“It’s a big game,” manager Peter Vermes said. “But I say it all the time: Each week is a big game. It really doesn’t matter who we play. The added piece to this is that they’re a conference team. Right now, the conference games become so magnified because there are a lot of teams clumped together.”
Unlike the Western Conference, whose top five teams can feel relatively comfortable about their playoff positioning heading into the season’s final months, the East is squarely up for grabs from top to bottom.
Just nine points separate the top six teams, with the Crew currently holding court on 40 points, Sporting just behind on 37, and DC the final of the serious contenders with 31 points – but holding at least two games in hand on every side in MLS save for Real Salt Lake.
So while Sporting were heartbroken to drop what appeared to be sure victories against Seattle and Dallas – lost points that would have left them comfortably in first place no less – they know the real six-pointers will come against conference rivals like the Dynamo.
“The Eastern Conference teams are actually more important to us,” defender Matt Besler said. “We look at the Houston [game] as probably the biggest game of the year because we can really separate ourselves from them and kind of get a little bit of a cushion for the playoffs.”
On the flip side, Houston will be approaching this game with equal parts self-interest – they could jump Sporting and move into second with a victory – and revenge after Kansas City snatched a point at the death earlier this season at Robertson Stadium.
Mix in the fact that Dominic Kinnear’s team is the only side in Major League Soccer other than Toronto and Vancouver to fail to win on the road, and you have a recipe for an epic struggle between two sides desperate to improve their fortunes at the other’s expense.
“I think you’re going to see a battle, pretty much,” Besler said. “It’s going to be an intense atmosphere like the LA game. …We’re going to be fighting for every ball. It might be ugly at times.”
But ugly or not, Kansas City are focused on one thing: collecting the three points that could help jump start what they hope will be a run at the conference title with make-or-break games against Philadelphia, RSL and Columbus on the horizon.
First things first, though, Sporting will have to take care of business against the Dynamo.
“We’re not going away,” Besler said. “There will be teams at this time of the year that kind of fade off a little bit. Our goal is to keep climbing. Once we get to the top, we want to stay there. Our first goal is to make the playoffs, but we still feel like we can win the Eastern Conference.”