KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Anyone see this coming in March and early April?
No team raced out of the blocks faster than Sporting Kansas City this season. With nine points from their first three matches and 12 from their first five -- including two wins on the road -- Sporting looked primed to contend for a Supporters' Shield and home field advantage through the Audi 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs.
But now, with four matches to go in the regular season, the picture is markedly different for a club that hasn't played a post-season match at home since winning MLS Cup in 2013. Sporting sit sixth in the Western Conference, and must play three of their last four games on the road. And two of those last four matches come against a San Jose Earthquakes team that's fighting to get above the red line in the West.
“It's a battle,” said SKC manager Peter Vermes, whose side visits Avaya Stadium on Saturday (10:30 pm ET, MLS LIVE) and close out the regular season against the Quakes at home on Oct. 23. “It's a battle. It's a battle every game from here on out. We're in a sprint and not in a marathon. That's where we're at.”
Getting the job done down the stretch will likely require Sporting to pick up three points on the road at least once – something they haven't done since beating the New York Red Bulls 2-0 away on April 9.
The last time they beat San Jose away? August 2000, on their way to winning their only Shield title and first MLS Cup with Vermes anchoring the backline.
The Earthquakes are ninth in the West on 34 points, six back of Sporting but with two games in hand.
“I don't know if it's more dangerous, but it's a very important game for us – for both teams,” winger Jacob Peterson told reporters on Wednesday. “This is a team that we're directly competing with for a playoff spot, so it's something that we need to be locked down from the get-go.”
Vermes still believes his club's experience can see them through. They haven't missed the playoffs since rebranding and moving into Children's Mercy Park in 2011, and have won three pieces of silverware over that span.
“We've done it many a time,” he said. “We've got a group that has quite a bit of experience. We've got to make sure that we use that to our advantage. That has to rule the day for us. Experience in your team has to be an important aspect this time of year – but in the end, you can never disregard desire.”
One key to staying in the top six – and perhaps moving up a spot or two – has to be shoring up a defense that has been bleeding untimely goals in recent matches. Sporting have conceded seven times in their last three outings, including two goals that allowed opponents to salvage draws at Children's Mercy Park.
“I think you have to move on, but I don't think you can't use those games as lessons,” Vermes said. “We talk about actions that happen in games and try to educate ourselves to make some of those plays.”
Sporting blew leads of 2-0 and 3-2 in a 3-3 home draw against last-place Houston on Sept. 9, conceding an equalizer late in stoppage time. They also gave up Landon Donovan's first post-unretirement goal in the 76th minute of last weekend's 2-2 draw with the LA Galaxy.
“We put in two pretty good performances,” said Peterson, who scored in both of those matches and has a career-high six goals this year. “I don't think anybody on those teams should say that they should have walked away with a point. I think we were the better team, but at this point of the season it doesn't matter. You have to pick up the points and you have to close out the game.”
With 37 goals conceded in 34 matches, Sporting will have to buckle way down to avoid giving up more than 40 goals for the third straight year. And of the six titles in the team's history, including their three Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup titles, only one came in a year when Kansas City gave up more than a goal a game in the regular season:
- 2000 (Supporters' Shield, MLS Cup): 32 GP, 29 GA
- 2004 (U.S. Open Cup): 30 GP, 30 GA
- 2012 (USOC): 34 GP, 27 GA
- 2013 (MLS Cup): 34 GP, 30 GA
- 2015 (USOC): 34 GP, 45 GA
“I do truly believe that defense wins championships,” Vermes said. “You hear that all the time in [American] football – you've got to be able to defend, defend, defend. It's an important aspect of the game. You give up zero, you always give yourself a really good chance to get points.”