KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Sporting Kansas City fought, scratched and clawed for the last five months to dig their way out of last place and into the thick of the playoff race.
That’s all in the past now, though.
With five crucial games remaining and 15 points left on the table, Kansas City know they’ll have to scratch and claw some more to lock down a playoff spot for the first time in three years – and they have very little margin for error.
On one hand, just one point separates Sporting from first-place Columbus Crew in the Eastern Conference. On the other, the Portland Timbers trail Kansas City by only three points while occupying the 10th and final place in the current logjam of sides queuing for a place in the postseason.
“We’ve worked so hard to get here,” Sporting defender/midfielder Júlio César said. “We have to play for first place. We have to take each of the five games left like a final.”
The first of those five “finals,” so to speak, will come on Friday against the Philadelphia Union at Livestrong Sporting Park (8:30 pm ET, FOX Soccer). Philly are just one of six teams seriously vying for the Eastern Conference title and stand just a point back of Kansas City with a game in hand.
And although the pressure will be on in front of their home fans, center back Matt Besler said Sporting know they can’t let the occasion alter the way they’ve played since turning their season around in May.
“The games are magnified, and it’s going to get pretty crazy,” Besler said. “Right now, it’s tight in the East, but we’re not going to change too much. We know that we’re a really dangerous team going forward. We know that we’re a tough team to break down when we stay compact and defend. But, naturally, the games are going to be more intense.”
With that intensity comes pressure that Sporting’s young core hasn’t had much, if any, experience with as professional players. Only Davy Arnaud, Roger Espinoza, Chance Myers, Michael Harrington and Eric Kronberg were members of the club’s last playoff team in 2008.
Fortunately for Kansas City, they have a stable of able-bodied veterans around to help keep the squad focused on the task at hand.
Jimmy Nielsen provides a level head in goal, Júlio César and Omar Bravo have played in their fair shares of decisive games and, of course, Arnaud is there to remind his teammates that the opportunity to control your own destiny much be protected at all costs.
“When the time comes around, you have to take advantage of it,” Arnaud said. “As much as you want to think the next year you’ll have another opportunity, that’s not always the case.”
And there will be no better opportunity to lock in a spot in the playoffs than games against the Union and conference-leading Columbus Crew over the course of five days – a fact Arnaud certainly won’t have to remind his teammates.
For now, cliché or not, Sporting are just taking it one game at a time.
“This game is a game for six points,” Júlio César said. “If we win, we’re in first place.”