KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Sporting Kansas City have spent the better part of the past two seasons as late-season outsiders, looking on longingly as other teams play meaningful games in August, September and October.
But after a few seasons in the wilderness, those days are over, the result of a three-plus month climb up the Eastern Conference table that has left Kansas City alone in third place and within striking distance of Columbus and Philadelphia.
All things considered, Sunday’s match at Livestrong Sporting Park against playoff and conference rivals D.C. United (8:30 pm ET, watch LIVE online) may just be the most important match Sporting have played since November 2008, when the Crew knocked the then-Wizards out of the MLS Cup playoffs.
“You can’t emphasize enough how important this game is for us,” midfielder Graham Zusi said.
Realistically speaking, the same goes for United as both teams prepare for a match that could potentially swing either club’s fortunes by as much as six points.
Kansas City may sit alone in third place in the East with 33 points, occupying the final automatic berth, but DC are just two points back with a game in hand while Houston and New York are knocking on the doorstep as well.
With a victory, manager Peter Vermes’ team could move to within a point of first-place Columbus and put some much-needed distance between themselves and United, which will host Sporting in the final game of the season for each team on Oct. 22.
And with so much at stake, defender Matt Besler, who was drafted the year after Kansas City’s last playoff appearance, tentatively labeled the clash the game of season so far.
“I don’t want to say it will be the biggest game of the year because we still have some left,” Besler said, “but so far we’re looking at it as that. It’s a great opportunity for us. They’re right on our heels. It’s another game at our place so we’ve got to take care of business.”
Fortunately for Sporting, they’ll catch United at home just three days after Ben Olsen’s charges battled to a 1-1 draw with the Chicago Fire at Toyota Park. Olsen will also be scrambling to decide on a goalkeeper after starter Bill Hamid suffered a hamstring strain just before halftime on Thursday night.
Still, Kansas City are well aware that DC are in the middle of their own midseason revival and will plan accordingly to shut down the likes of Andy Najar, Chris Pontius, Charlie Davies and — especially — the ever-dangerous Dwayne De Rosario.
“You can be on [De Rosario] all game then, in the 89th minute, he can hit a rocket into the corner,” Besler said. “He’s a guy that we are going to keep an eye on, but they have a lot of guys [playing well] attacking-wise.”
That doesn’t mean Sporting will approach the clash with anything but the expectation of three points, however.
After all, they are 5-1-4 at LSP this season and have suffered just one defeat since May 21. And, as Roger Espinoza put it, anything but three points against a conference opponent is unacceptable in Sporting’s quest to return to the postseason.
“Every time we play against an Eastern Conference team,” Espinoza said, “we need to win.”