The Knockout Round has provided Sporting Kansas City with ample frustration since the new format was instituted in 2015.
Each of the last three seasons the team has been eliminated at that stage, as is well-publicized. But not this time around. This season, a five-game unbeaten run to end the year lifted the club to the top of the Western Conference, and with it, a useful Get Out Of The Knockout Round Free! card. As eight clubs geared up to play their win-or-go-home game on Halloween and the first day of November, SKC sat, played out scenarios and waited.
They earned these extra days of training by finishing the season with two straight wins over top-tier conference opponents. They beat previously-first place FC Dallas on the penultimate weekend of the season then took care of business against previously-second place LAFC while down to 10-men for the last half hour.
Now, they'll head Rio Tinto Stadium for the opening leg of an Eastern Conference Semifinals bout against Real Salt Lake on Sunday (10 pm ET | FS1, TSN, TVAS).
"The last couple of games show that there's a lot of situations where we reacted the right way as a team," winger Daniel Salloi told MLSsoccer.com after training on Wednesday. "The last game, we went a man down and were very disciplined of defending to secure our win. Those are things champions can do, winners can do. Those aren't easy situations."
SKC has passed every test the games have thrown at them: home or away; favorites or underdogs; finesse or grit.
"The thing is, we go into every season with the best mentality," Salloi said. "We want to win everything. Having this regular season is definitely a big help. This is confidence, it shows we're a strong team and can compete against any team, in any situation."
The way the team finished the season is one way to show improvement from 2017, when the club was unable to set themselves up in the best possible situation heading into the playoffs. Not only did they have to play a Knockout Round game, but they were forced to hit the road.
"Last year, we were in the same position," Salloi said. "We had the chance in our hands, we could have won the conference then, but we slid down to an away knockout game. This is the difference from last year. This year we could secure our spot and win the conference. It gives us a lot of confidence."
Salloi is a big reason why the team ended the regular season as well as it did. The Hungarian shined, with four goals in his last three games, the most recent of which was a well-taken go-ahead goal against LAFC after being reduced to 10 men. It's no surprise to those around the team, as Salloi has enjoyed a true breakout year in 2018.
The 22-year-old won the team's Golden Boot with 11 goals, is third in assists with seven and has played more minutes than any striker or winger in a deep attacking unit.
"It's amazing," Salloi said. "It really feels good to play a special role for this team, to help the teams win games. I feel like I worked hard to get my chances. I scored a lot of important goals. This is awesome, I'm loving every moment. This is why I want to finish it with a trophy because this year deserves a trophy."
With the form he's in, Salloi is ready to trade the training bib for his matchday kit.
"I really don't want to practice right now, I just want to play the games! This is how we all feel, we're too excited for the playoffs," Salloi said.
Last season, Salloi and SKC lifted the U.S. Open Cup. He started the final on the bench but scored what ended up being the game-winning goal in their 2-1 win over the New York Red Bulls. This season, he wants a new trophy.
SKC were bounced in the Knockout Round a year ago and Salloi got just 69 playoff minutes under his belt. This postseason, he has plans for five games.
"Of course," Salloi excitedly said when asked if he dreams of scoring a game-winning goal to win MLS Cup. "Since last year when we won the Open Cup, it's just the next step. I really want to do it. It's a dream."
Maybe 2018 is the season that his dream will come true.