Technically speaking, Sporting Kansas City aren’t Eastern Conference champions just yet. That formal title will come should they advance to MLS Cup.
Don’t tell that to Matt Besler & Co., though. They certainly aren’t getting bogged down in technicalities at a time like this.
Basement dwellers as late as June, Sporting locked up first place in the East on Saturday night, knocking off D.C. United 1-0 at RFK Stadium to seal home-field advantage throughout the postseason and complete their worst-to-first narrative.
So champions? Maybe not. But the de facto team to beat in the Eastern Conference? No doubt.
“Whether it’s champions or just No. 1 seed, it doesn’t really matter to us,” Besler told MLSsoccer.com by phone after the game. “We have home-field advantage. That’s all we care about.”
No matter what it’s called, nothing can discount what Kansas City managed to accomplish after emerging from a season-opening 10-game road trip with just six points, a total that left them in dead last in Major League Soccer.
And although Sporting spent nearly two months bringing up the foot of the table, they recovered admirably and put together a 12-3-9 record from June 9 forward, gradually clawing their way past the rest of the pack and laying claim to first place on the final day of season.
Besler, who scored the game’s only goal in the 54th minute, was 17 years old the last time Kansas City finished a regular season in first place in 2004. Now, seven years later, he will lead his hometown team into the postseason.
“The path we took makes it sweeter,” Besler said. “It’s probably not the path that I’d like to choose every year. The fact is we climbed back from last place, though. It feels a little more special.”
All that remains to be seen now is whether or not Sporting can take advantage of the prime playoff position they earned after 34 games and eight long months of struggle.
Their semifinal opponent will be decided in the next few days as four Wild Card teams pare themselves down to two, and manager Peter Vermes said he’ll deliver the same message to his team as when they moved into Livestrong Sporting Park this summer.
Having an advantage is definitely nice, but you have to take care of business to make it matter.
“It’s great to have the home-field advantage,” Vermes said, “but you’ve still got to win. What I feel good about is the guys came on the road and they got a win. That’s what you’ve got to do in this next round of the playoffs.”
And, Eastern Conference champions or not, Kansas City still have plenty of reasons to think they have as good a chance of any to advance to the Home Depot Center on Nov. 20.
They’re on form, healthy, bursting with confidence and they will have nearly 20,000 fans behind them at LSP should they need a little extra inspiration.
“The bottom line is we put ourselves in this position,” Vermes said. “Now, we move on because a new season begins. Everybody’s got a fresh start, and we’ve got to be ready to play.”