KANSAS CITY, Mo. – After yet another season filled with injuries to key players, and to new arrivals who had been expected to play bigger roles, would making the postseason for a sixth straight year qualify as a successful 2016 campaign for Sporting Kansas City?
Not where the players are concerned – but it would be a good start.
“To be successful, I think we'd have to win something,” midfielder Benny Feilhaber told MLSsoccer.com on Tuesday. “Since it hasn't been anything else, it would have to be MLS Cup at this point.”
But is that realistic, given where Sporting sit right now? Going into their last two matches of the regular season, with a trip to Real Salt Lake on Sunday up next (5 pm ET; MLS LIVE), Sporting are in sixth place in the Western Conference, just two points clear of the seventh-place Portland Timbers.
Midfielder Roger Espinoza, who has quietly assumed the captain's role this season, doesn't think a long run in the Audi 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs is out of the question. Ask him how far Sporting can go, and he's quick with one word.
“Finals,” Espinoza said. “If we get to the playoffs, we need to be in the finals. That's the expectation here in Kansas City. Hey, you saw Portland last year.”
Espinoza has a point. The Timbers had to endure an 11-round shootout against Sporting in the Knockout Round – an ordeal that saw Sporting hit the woodwork twice, including Saad Abdul-Salaam's infamous double-post miss – and then went on to hoist their first MLS Cup.
Can Sporting follow the same path, get hot late and lift their fourth piece of silverware in five years?
“I don't see why not,” said veteran winger Jacob Peterson, whose six goals this year are a career best. “I think we have a good mix of younger guys that have performed well, and then veteran guys. And we're going to get some guys back here healthy, which will help us.
“I absolutely think that we have the parts, but we've got to make sure we put the work out in the field or it doesn't really matter.”
Part of that challenge will be shoring up a defense that has conceded 16 times in the club's last eight league games and hasn't recorded a clean sheet since a 2-0 home victory over Vancouver on Aug. 20.
“I think we've got to stop giving up some easy goals,” Feilhaber said. “As a team, we haven't been difficult enough to play against. If we're able to do that, I think we can mount a run. We've been scoring some goals in opportune moments. We've been getting better at set pieces recently. It's all about clamping down defensively as a team.”
Sporting can't clinch with a victory on Sunday, but three road points would go a long way toward securing that sixth straight playoff berth. And with only three away victories in league play this year – and four across all competitions – Sporting could use a shot of momentum for a postseason in which they'll have to win on the road to make a significant run.
“It's not going to be an easy one,” Peterson said of the trip to Utah. “It's a tough place to go play, and it's a team that we've struggled with over the years, so we have to correct that.”
On the other hand, Espinoza said, playing away in a tournament format requires a different mindset.
“The postseason is a whole new season,” he said. “It's a whole new season, and it doesn't matter what the regular season was. It's a different type of game. It's one game, you go and you try to win it at all costs. Then you worry about the next game after that.”
Sporting haven't played at home in the postseason – or won a playoff match – since their shootout victory over RSL for the 2013 MLS Cup title. And they still haven't sealed a berth for the 2016 playoffs.
Still, Espinoza said, the club's string of postseason appearances show that they've been able to clinch when they need to – and their MLS Cup and two US Open Cup titles since their 2011 rebrand prove that they can get the job done in knockout situations.
“We have an identity here,” he said. “We've stuck to the game plan. We've fought for each other. We've played good soccer. You have to play good soccer. You can't make it every year just playing whatever.
“Five years, it means you have an identity in the club and a style of play. That doesn't change. Whoever comes, the new guys have to incorporate right away. That doesn't mean every year's going to go great, but when you stick to the game plan you have a chance to be successful.”