KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Peter Vermes doesn't have to remind his club how their last two MLS Cup playoff runs ended. He's still done it a few times, though.
“To make myself feel good, I do,” said Sporting Kansas City's manager, whose team opens postseason play on Saturday at New England in the Eastern Conference Semifinals (8 pm ET, NBCSN). “But a lot of them know exactly what they have to do, and they have their own ambitions. They want to win. So it's not hard for me to motivate them from that perspective.”
In 2011, their first year under the Sporting banner, Kansas City made a late-season surge to the top of the East and cruised past Colorado in the Conference Semifinals – only to lose a one-match Conference Championship 2-0 to Houston at home, despite an early injury to Dynamo playmaker Brad Davis.
Last year, after winning the US Open Cup and repeating their finish atop the East, they turned in a spirited 1-0 win over the Dynamo in the home leg of the East Semis – but it wasn't enough to advance after a lackluster 2-0 loss in the away leg.
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“We had a talk early this week about how we wanted to approach the playoffs and what we wanted our mentality to be,” said center back Matt Besler, speaking after Vermes on Thursday at the club's weekly news conference. “We pretty much decided that we're just going to focus on ourselves. We're not going to worry too much about who we might be playing, or what they're going to do. Obviously, we're going to look into game plans and stuff like that, but we're going to focus on ourselves.”
Sporting's 3-0-1 league record and 3-0-2 mark across all competitions in October, when they didn't give up a goal until the 88th minute of their wild 2-1 win over Philadelphia in the regular-season finale, is one source of their confidence.
“They've all taken on the life of an MLS playoff game,” Vermes said. “The two conferences were so tight that every game mattered so much. It was almost like a knockout stage. Those environments, I think, have all been great in the lead-up toward the playoffs.”
Sporting's tight-knit roster, laden with experienced players, is another big plus for their manager.
“We've got a good core group of guys who've been in this for – this is now their third year,” Vermes said. “That gives us, and I'm not comparing us to anybody else in the league, but it gives us a good foundation as we move through the playoffs.”
And after two years of the pressure of a No. 1 seed in the East, Sporting are content to let Supporters' Shield winners New York shoulder that burden this time around. Then again, Vermes said, the league's big spenders – especially the Red Bulls and two-time defending MLS Cup champions LA Galaxy – should always face the pressure to live up to their budgets.
“Those guys outspend us by – I can't even tell you,” he said on Thursday. “So the pressure's on them at the end of the day, not on us. What we do know is that for us, we have an ambition – and that's to win.”
Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com.