KANSAS CITY, Mo. – C.J. Sapong is entering uncharted waters. The same goes for the vast majority of his teammates.
When Sporting Kansas City take the field in Colorado on Sunday evening in the opening leg of their Eastern Conference Semifinal series (7:30 pm ET, Fox Soccer, TSN2), they’ll do so with just four of 18 available players with MLS Cup Playoffs experience and the real possibility that manager Peter Vermes’ starting 11 will have nine postseason newbies.
Sapong, for instance, didn’t so much play in a NCAA Tournament game during his four years at James Madison, but he said veterans such as Davy Arnaud are doing their best to pass on some playoff wisdom.
“It’s mostly the older guys in the locker room just reminiscing about past games they’ve played in and letting us know about the electricity and how much it means for an organization,” Sapong said. “It’s definitely good to have those voices getting you ready for what is at stake.”
What’s at stake for Kansas City is the continuation of a season that began as a nightmare but has the chance to turn into something out of their wildest dreams.
Ultimately, though, only Arnaud, Kei Kamara, Roger Espinoza and Michael Harrington have playoff experience to draw upon, and all except Arnaud have just one edition under their belts. Like most of the team, Sapong didn’t need to hesitate when asked where Saturday’s game against the Rapids ranked in his career, delivering four telling words.
“It’s the very biggest,” he said.
Vermes, however, doesn’t seem overly concerned about his green roster being overcome by the moment.
Sporting may be one of the youngest teams in Major League Soccer, but the relative gap in professional tenure hasn’t kept them from climbing the table at the expense of more-seasoned counterparts and competing on equal footing against MLS’ elite.
“For us, there’s no doubt that there is maybe some experience that we have to gain by going through it,” said Vermes, who never missed the playoffs as a player. “But I don’t think that’s going to be the one issue that tips the scales either way. If we hadn’t played in enough big games up until now, I might be concerned.”
And even though postseason minutes are at a premium, that doesn’t necessarily mean Sporting’s foreign players and core of youngsters are stepping into the complete unknown. Jimmy Nielsen, Júlio César and Omar Bravo’s decades of professional experience in Europe and Central America speaks for itself. Both Bravo and Júlio César are also veterans of Mexico’s Primera División, one of the only other big leagues in the world to select its champion via playoff format.
Matt Besler, Seth Sinovic, Teal Bunbury and Chance Myers all come from top-tier college programs, while Graham Zusi was a key contributor in Maryland’s run to the national championship in 2008, a feat he’s eager to compliment with another title.
“Now that we’ve [made the playoffs], my goal is to win a championship,” Zusi said. “At different levels of your career, you have big games. This is probably the biggest step that I’ve reached as a professional.”
Ditto for all but a few of his teammates. So while Kansas City may not have much in the way of relevant experience, they feel confident that they can make up for that fact with the knowledge and familiarity built up from forging through their fair share of adversity this season.
Then again, they may just not know any better.
“We’re having fun with it,” Besler said. “We believe in each other.”