The last matchup between Sporting Kansas City and Austin FC was just over a month ago, an entertaining back-and-forth contest at Children's Mercy Park that saw the expansion side give SKC everything they could handle before a late goal from Gadi Kinda sealed a 2-1 victory for the home side.
On Saturday, the sides meet again in a rematch in Kansas City (3 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+) that will mark the first MLS game to be played since the league paused during the June international break. And, helped by taking part in the only game this weekend, Sporting KC will have the chance to leapfrog the Seattle Sounders and go top of the Western Conference and the Supporters' Shield standings.
Speaking to reporters on his Thursday video call, Sporting head coach Peter Vermes said there was plenty to gleam from that first May 10 matchup against a first-year Austin side that is holding its own so far in its expansion season, as his team looks to build on the three-game winning streak they rattled off prior to the break.
Going into Saturday's match, Austin have just seven points from their seven matches. But that probably doesn't do justice to how competitive they've been over a rigorous opening stretch that has seen them play all of those games on the road while the finishing touches are put on the construction of their soon-to-be-opened new home of Q2 Stadium.
"They're a very good team, they have really good quality players," Vermes said of Austin. "They're organized. I think they have a really good understanding of how they want to play. I think their players are extremely energetic and I think that they have a good combination of some veterans, some young guys, guys that are really good on the ball, some guys that get in behind you. It's a good team. I've always said that in this last, I don't know, five years of expansion or six, they're not expansion teams. They come in with the ability to really build a roster based on a lot of the different mechanisms that they have and also the money that they're provided. They've done a really good job in doing that."
The timing of the match means that Sporting will be without standout forward Alan Pulido, who is still with the Mexico national team. The 30-year-old has started six of Sporting's eight matches so far this year, scoring five goals and dishing out one assist.
"We're missing a big piece, he plays a big role in this team," Vermes said. "But I think we still have threatening attacking pieces. No matter where any player is on the field, we should be able to get the job done."
On the Austin side, the match marks the final match they'll have to play of the early-season road marathon before their much-anticipated opening of Q2 on June 19 against the San Jose Earthquakes. All told, head coach Josh Wolff said he's pleased with where his team stands as they look forward to finally playing some home games, even if there's still much to work on.
"The stretch is coming where we get a lot of games at home, but they will start coming quickly and we've got to be quite mindful of that: Getting our guys fresh, getting them up to speed with what the games are going to look like," Wolff said. "But I expect more energy, certainly more atmosphere at home for ourselves. It's been tough being on the road, but we've got to keep perspective. Teams don't go on the road and win 10 games in this league. We put ourselves in some positions to win some games, come away with some points, we probably left some points out there.
"But there's been some positive growth and we've got to keep growing. We're nowhere close to a final product. We're looking forward to getting home obviously, but getting home doesn't mean you flip a switch and score a bunch of goals. We've got to keep working, keep grinding and be more efficient in some areas in and around goal."
Specifically, Wolff reiterated that getting sharper and more cohesive in the attack is the biggest priority his team needs to address. While Austin have by and large been solid defensively, they've found the net just five times so far this season. As much as he doesn't want to overlook the positives, Wolff said, it's a number that needs to improve to get the team to where they want to be.
"We've got to score some goals, I won't lie," said Wolff. "We've got to score some more goals. And we're working on it.