Sporting Kansas City aren't content with being in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. They're aiming to win it all on Dec. 9.
After clawing their way into the postseason, they've taken down the Western Conference's best in No. 1-seed St. Louis CITY SC, completing a clean sweep in their Round One Best-of-3 series.
"The guys work so hard. They worked so hard to get to the playoffs," manager and sporting director Peter Vermes said after Sunday's 2-1 clinching win. "They're not just satisfied with getting to the playoffs. They want to try and go for it."
Hitting the road
Sporting KC recognize it won't get any easier from here on out. As the lowest remaining team in the Supporters' Shield standings, they'll play all upcoming matches on the road – including their single-elimination Western Conference Semifinal on Nov. 25 or Nov. 26 vs. whoever wins the Houston Dynamo FC (No. 4) vs. Real Salt Lake (No. 5) series.
But after flipping the script against St. Louis, starting with last weekend's 4-1 road victory in Match 1 before completing the job vs. their Midwest rival in Match 2, belief is soaring.
"I think we've proved a lot of people wrong, but why stop now," club captain Johnny Russell posed after the match. " … We'll probably still be underdogs the whole way, but we want to go the whole way."
Vermes said Sporting KC must understand that "we're in the lions' den, and we have to become a lion." Dániel Sallói, whose second-half strike won Sunday's match after Logan Ndenbe scored for a second straight game, struck a similar tune.
"Probably nobody believed that we would be in the playoffs," said Sallói. "Nobody bet on us that we would take St. Louis out. It happened and we keep going. Love being the underdogs."
Don't stop believing
Despite SKC starting the season 10 games winless and creating plenty of external pessimism, Vermes never doubted the quality and the potential of his players. They've been the West's best team since May and, via a last-ditch qualification on Decision Day, earned a No. 8 seed.
"We struggled early, but I always maintained that I believe we have a very good team," Vermes said. "Like, not a good team, but a very good and possibly great team.
"... What I would say is the fact that we had to go through a lot of scraping and scrapping and biting and fighting and all the things you do, I think we're ready for games like this."
As losses piled up in early spring, the KC Cauldron supporters' group memorably penned an open letter demanding their "enthusiasm and passion for our team … be met with equal effort and emotion from the Sporting organization."
Perhaps that level of doubt, even from SKC's fans, gave them the extra fuel they needed. It certainly hasn't been forgotten.
"I think the relationship between the fans and the team, to me, it's a family. And I think you have to stand by your family when things are going tough as well. That's what I believe," said Vermes, who played for SKC and has been at the helm since 2009.
"It's easy in anything you do to stand by somebody or be happy when things are going well. It's when things aren't going well, what do you do? And it's the one thing I told the guys every single day we would come to training. I was like, ‘Look, in the end, the only people that are going to get us out of this is us. And right now, if we're the only ones that believe that, no problem. We're the ones who are going to make it happen.’ And credit to those guys. They did."
When Sporting return after the November international break, they'll seek the fighting spirit and back-against-the-wall mentality that's given them an edge.
"We had that chip on our shoulder. Everyone wrote us off," Russell said. "To get it done in two, especially when [St. Louis] had the two home games, people would have wrote us off. An incredible, incredible feeling.
"... Just to be a part of this when the guys have done everything they can to turn the season around, honestly it's up there with the most enjoyable things in my career."