KANSAS CITY, Kan. – When Sporting Kansas City hit their rough late-season patch, and the postseason went from a virtual lock to an uncertain proposition going into Decision Day, one question kept popping up in fans' conversations.
Would winning their second US Open Cup since 2012 qualify this year as a successful one for Sporting, even if they didn't make the Audi 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs?
If that was a concern for supporters, forward Dom Dwyer said after delivering Kansas City's fifth straight playoff berth, he and his teammates never gave the question any thought.
“It was never a doubt in my mind if we were going to make the playoffs or not,” Dwyer told reporters on Sunday, after scoring the match-winner in the 2-1 victory over the LA Galaxy that secured a spot in Thursday's play-in match at Portland (10 pm E |, UniMás, SAP available). “Obviously we had to get a result tonight, but I’ve been here four years now and we’ve made the playoffs every year. This was probably the best team I’ve been on during these four years.”
Even before Sunday's match, Dwyer's teammates were saying the same thing – that they valued the Open Cup, but also expected to contend for their second MLS Cup in three years and first Cup double in club history.
“We're right in the middle of things,” center back and captain Matt Besler told reporters last Thursday, a day after Sporting fell 2-0 to last-place Colorado and saw their chances of a first-round bye all but slip away. “It's great that we've won the Open Cup, but we're definitely not satisfied as players.”
Right back Chance Myers, Sporting's longest-tenured player, said the club's core of veterans expect to make the postseason every year – but at the same time, he said, they can't rely on their past successes to carry them deep into this year's playoffs.
“You can take tidbits of what got you on the successful runs,” said Myers, who the then-Wizards took with the first overall pick in the 2008 MLS SuperDraft. “But the past is the past, and every game's different. Every game, every situation presents something different, and we've just got to be prepared for it.”
One constant this season is that in every game in which they might have been eliminated from a competition – all of their Open Cup matches and Sunday's regular season finale – Sporting have risen to the occasion and secured a victory.
“Over the course of this season, we’ve been extremely competitive,” manager Peter Vermes said during Sunday's post-match news conference. “I also think that there is a mental toughness in our group that is at times incredible, and at times maybe we’ve been a little inconsistent with it. But I don’t think that piece is different from most teams in this league. What I do think is that whenever it’s time that we have to get something done, we have been pretty good at the plate.
“We haven’t struck out, and that’s the good thing about this group. There’s a good mentality in games like finals, and today was a final.”
That's how Sporting approached it, midfielder Benny Feilhaber said, and that brought out the team's competitiveness in win-or-go-home situations.
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“I think we definitely have that as a team, and me as an individual,” Feilhaber told reporters on Sunday night, after coming off the bench and delivering his 15th league assist of the year on Dwyer's match-winner. “We want to drive forward and we want to make sure we put it all on the line. Tonight could have been our last game, and obviously, Portland could be our last game.
“It just means more. It's as simple as that. It just means more in the playoffs, and I think everybody's a little more amped up for it.”
That sentiment came up before Decision Day as well, not only from the players who are used to competing for trophies since the club's rebrand in 2011, but also from the newcomers who have stepped into major roles for Sporting in yet another season marked by near-constant roster change.
“This team is built for success and has full ability to win championships,” said 'keeper Tim Melia, who was in goal when Sporting outlasted the Philadelphia Union on penalties in the Open Cup final after a 1-1 draw through regulation and extra time. “We want to go and win anything and everything that's possible.”
Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com.