Despite a difficult 2019, Sporting Kansas City were something off a preseason darling after the big-money acquisition of Alan Pulido and a long-established culture of success under head coach Peter Vermes.
Still, heading into the Round of 16 at the MLS is Back Tournament, Sporting find themselves flying somewhat under the radar. Columbus Crew SC have emerged as the trendy pick to make a deep run after a dominant Group Stage, while mainstay contenders like LAFC, the Seattle Sounders and Toronto FC have all remained in the discussion.
But should SKC be included among those favorites? Speaking with reporters on Friday, midfielder Ilie Sanchez admitted that he does feel a lack of respect from the outside.
“I like your question because finally someone asks a question that’s focused on seeing our club as one of the favorites,” Ilie said. “For sure, we’re a club that has always worked to fight for titles and I think that from the outside what we do here at Sporting is not valued. But that’s something doesn’t affect us and we can’t control.”
Added Pulido: "We don’t feel like favorites of the tournament. We feel confident but not overconfident … We know we’re strong, but we’re not the candidates to win the tournament, that’s the reality.”
It might be because Sporting are yet to record a complete performance like when they shot out of the gates back in March, racking up seven goals in two games. Few teams have fully recaptured their sharpness after the four-month layoff, with Vermes saying this "second restart has been a lot more difficult." Vermes added that he feels SKC were better back in March than today's version, but he's heartened by the improvements he's seen in Orlando.
"But we have a long way to go. We really do,” Vermes said. “We have to get back in a rhythm in our play. There are a lot of pieces in our play that have go get sharper in a lot of areas that we perceive we have to get better in.”
Sporting's first chance at that will come Sunday against the Vancouver Whitecaps (11 pm ET | FS1, TUDN in US; TSN in Canada). It pits SKC against a shorthanded Whitecaps squad that's missing key pieces, but persevered out of Group B with a 2-0 win over Chicago Fire FC.
“We know that there’s some good improvisation [on Vancouver] and some real speed and some guys that can be really dangerous going forward that we’re going to have to be very, very aware of,” Vermes said. “And hopefully we can do the counter to them, and that is hopefully we can be really dangerous. I think we have some guys who are good in the attack and hopefully will be on that night.“