Sporting KC find defensive groove again headed into postseason

KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- When Sporting Kansas City struggled this season -- and it happened more than once -- the refrain afterward was always the same.

Sporting, players and coaches alike insisted, just needed to find the defensive form that has marked the club during manager Peter Vermes' tenure and helped them win three trophies in four years.

Looks as though they've found it. After Sunday's 2-0 victory over the San Jose Earthquakes in the regular-season finale, Sporting have recorded two straight shutouts.

"It’s a little bit of a mentality, a team mentality to get guys behind the ball, to not over-commit to give the other team easy opportunities," said midfielder Benny Feilhaber, whose 27th-minute penalty opened Sunday's scoring. "I think the chances they had today they had to work for. There wasn’t a breakaway from half field that we have been prone to giving up in the past. It’s the little things and when you make it tough for other teams to score, you give yourselves a chance.

"I don’t think it was one of our best games, but we played well as a team and we took our opportunities and played good defense, so that’s the way we won."

Sporting could have been down 2-0 before Feilhaber's penalty, if not for two huge plays from central defenders Matt Besler and Kevin Ellis.

Besler made a long recovery run and sliding block on Chris Wondolowski to stop a breakaway in the 10th minute, and a wild sequence in the 24th -- in which 'keeper Tim Melia denied Wondolowski twice but couldn't stop the ball from pinging around the area -- ended when Ellis headed the ball out of the goalmouth and out for a corner kick.

"That's the trust that we have in each other," Ellis told reporters. "One guy's stepping to a guy, the other one's going to cover in. We know Tim's going to make good saves. It's just confidence."

Sporting also carried the confidence of five straight playoff appearances -- including the 2013 MLS Cup title -- into Sunday's match, sealing their sixth consecutive berth with the clean sheet.

"I wouldn’t even call it a streak," manager Peter Vermes said during his postmatch news conference. "I would just say that we made a commitment when I took over. Our biggest thing was what we don’t want to have are these aberrations where one year we are winning and the next year we are last place in the league. We want to continue to be competitive. We want to continue to do well and always put ourselves in a position to compete for MLS Cup.

"Our first goal is making the MLS Playoffs, and we have done that now six years in a row. I go back to giving credit to the effort and the guys’ commitment to getting in."

Sporting finished fifth in the Western Conference, moving up one spot with the victory, and will open the Audi 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs on Thursday at Seattle (10 pm ET, FS1, UniMás | MLS LIVE in Canada). But in a sense, midfielder/winger and captain Roger Espinoza told reporters, Sporting have been in a knockout situation for some time now as they fought to stay above the red line.

"The last 10 games have been like playoff games for us," Espinoza said. "Going to Salt Lake [where Sporting drew 0-0 last week], that was a playoff game. That’s how you have to play on the road. Today, was like a playoff game.

"I don’t think you have to change anything. We just have to keep going. It’s a new season, but it starts right away and that’s good."