KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The last time Sporting Kansas City met Seattle, Sporting administered a thumping that ended Sigi Schmid's long run as the Sounders' manager.
The Seattle team waiting in the Knockout Round of the Audi 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs bears little resemblance to the one that stumbled to a 3-0 loss at Children's Mercy Park on July 24 and were swept in two matches by Sporting this season.
Oh, the names on the kits are the same – mostly the same, that is, with one big midseason acquisition and one medical casualty since Schmid was replaced by interim manager Brian Schmetzer. But where Seattle looked listless and dispirited in Schmid's final match, the current edition is one of the league's hottest clubs.
“Coming into the season, you knew Seattle was going to be one of the contenders,” Sporting captain Roger Espinoza told reporters ahead of Tuesday's training session. “Every year they are. I was surprised when they weren't doing well, and now I'm not surprised that they're doing pretty good.”
Seattle go into Thursday night's match at CenturyLink Field (10 pm ET, FS1, UniMás | TSN1/5 in Canada) having won eight of their last 12 matches, rising to the fourth seed in the Western Conference after struggling near the bottom of the table for the first half of the season.
“They got some results, and this is a results-based sport,” winger Graham Zusi said. “If you're getting some wins and going on some runs – it's all about confidence as a team, and they were able to get that in the second half of the season.”
Having Uruguayan midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro on the roster has done a lot to drive that confidence, Sporting manager Peter Vermes said. Since his arrival on July 27 – transferring in from Argentina's Boca Juniors just after Schmid's departure was announced – Lodeiro has rung up eight assists and four goals in 13 games.
“He's a good attacking midfielder, very good player on the ball, has a lot of qualities to play forward,” Vermes said. “His movement is good. I think he sees the game really well and can give the final pass, can score. He's a very dangerous player.”
Rookie striker Jordan Morris has proven himself dangerous as well, providing a significant scoring threat even with Clint Dempsey sidelined for the rest of the season by an irregular heartbeat.
Morris, the first college player to debut as a US international in 15 years when he earned his first cap in November 2014 while still enrolled at Stanford, broke MLS's rookie scoring record among American players with 12 goals in 2016.
“He was actually one of the guys who was a bright spot when they were not doing so well,” Espinoza said. “Being a young guy, he's been amazing, and now that Lodeiro got there, that opens a lot more space for him.
“It's great to see young guys in the league doing that well. It just tells you that the league is developing in the right way.”
Fifth-seeded Sporting take their own dose of confidence into Thursday's match, though. Not only are they in the playoffs for the sixth straight season, Kansas City have recorded clean sheets in their final two regular-season matches.
“That proves to our team and everybody else that we can do the job,” center back Kevin Ellis said after Sunday's regular-season finale, a 2-0 home win over San Jose. “We've gotten back to who we are.”