Roger Espinoza - Sporting Kansas City - closeup

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Roger Espinoza spent the last match of Sporting Kansas City's 2015 season alone at home with his dog, watching his club lose a heartbreaking 11-round shootout in a Western Conference Knockout Round slugfest.


Now, having quietly assumed the captain's role at midseason, the veteran midfielder is trying to lead Sporting back into the postseason – with one match left to seal a sixth straight playoff berth.


“The last time we were out of the playoffs here was in 2010,” Espinoza told reporters during a Thursday news conference ahead of Sunday's regular-season finale against the San Jose Earthquakes (4 pm ET, MLS LIVE). “The expectations here are very high. I don't think that anybody's thinking about going home early, especially me.”


Espinoza first wore the armband on June 2, with center back Matt Besler on international duty with the United States at the Copa America Centenario. At the time, Sporting had gone 1-7-2 in their previous 10 matches and won just three times in eight outings at Children's Mercy Park.


Sporting drew the LA Galaxy 0-0 away that day, starting a six-match unbeaten run. Sporting are 6-0-2 at home since Espinoza took the armband, going into Sunday's match.


And while manager Peter Vermes still considers Besler one of the club's senior leaders – and made a point of saying so on Thursday – he has never been one to make changes when his club is in form unless he has to.


“We were really starting to fly there for a little while, and I just stayed with what was happening,” Vermes said during his own news conference. “I think he's done a good job, but the great thing is that I would say about Matt and Graham [Zusi] and even Benny [Feilhaber] – those guys have all taken that part seriously in understanding that they've been here long enough that it's not just one guy that has to have an influence on the team.”


Espinoza has a personal reason for wanting to reach the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs: Unlike many of his contemporaries with Sporting, he doesn't have an MLS Cup ring.


When Kansas City won the 2013 title, Espinoza – who first played for the club from 2009-12, helping them win the 2012 US Open Cup – was in the midst of a two-year stint with English side Wigan Athletic before returning to Sporting in 2015.


“I'm one of the few guys on the team who has never won MLS Cup,” he said. “I'm sure the guys love that feeling, and they want to get back to that.”


Espinoza spent the latter part of the 2015 season recovering from a broken sesamoid bone in his foot, receiving his clearance to play shortly before Sporting's play-in loss to the Portland Timbers after the two sides drew 2-2 through 120 minutes.


That loss – in which Sporting twice found the woodwork during the penalty stage, including Saad Abdul-Salaam's double-post miss – meant Espinoza had to wait until this season to take the pitch again.


“It was tough, for sure,” he said. “I hate watching games. I think a lot of players do. You have no control. When you're in a game, you have control – or you feel like you do. So watching from home, it was tough. We had about four opportunities to win in regular time, then overtime, then penalties.


“But when it's not for you, it's not for you sometimes.”


To even get into a knockout situation, though, Sporting will have to hold off a standings challenge from the Timbers on Sunday.


That means not giving up soft goals, Espinoza said – something Sporting have struggled with for much of the season, though they have seen fewer costly turnovers and defensive lapses down the stretch.


“I think our problem has been trying to defend the goal,” Espinoza said. “But I have no doubt that we'll score. We've had opportunities. We had opportunities in [last weekend's scoreless draw at] Salt Lake, the game before that, the game before that. We'll definitely have opportunities. We've just got to make sure that we're concentrating for 90-plus minutes. I'd be happy winning by 1-0. I don't care what anybody else does; 1-0 would make me happy.”


A 1-0 victory would get the job done, and could even get Sporting out of the Play-in Game. But if Sporting lose -- and the team chasing them also loses -- then things get dicey.


Sporting hold the sixth and final Western Conference playoff spot on goal differential, ahead of Portland, with whom they are tied on points (44) and total wins (12). Their goal differential lead, however, is skinny – +2, compared to Portland's +1 – which could come into play if Sporting lose to the Earthquakes and the Timbers fall on Sunday at Vancouver.


If both teams end up even on victories and goal differential, the third tiebreaker is total goals scored – and Portland hold a commanding 47-40 advantage in that category. Sporting's 40 goals are the fourth-fewest in the league – but then again, the Colorado Rapids, currently second in the Supporters Shield standings, have scored only 38.

Sporting KC skipper Espinoza determined to keep club's playoff run going - https://league-mp7static.mlsdigital.net/images/Dwyer_1.jpg

The bulk of Sporting's offense this season has come through center forward Dom Dwyer (pictured above), whose 16 goals are tied for fourth-most in the league, but winger Jacob Peterson is enjoying a career year with six goals and Feilhaber also has six goals in league play.


Diego Rubio, Dwyer's prime backup, went down with a torn ACL in training last week. But Sporting got an encouraging sign on Wednesday when Cameron Porter, acquired at midseason from Montreal, scored his first goal since March 2015 in a 3-1 CONCACAF Champions League victory over Trinidadian side Central FC.


“I think tonight was good for him,” Vermes said of Porter after that match. “He showed a lot of different things that were important for us moving forward because his movement off the ball was very good, and that’s something we need out of that position.”