A year ago, Sporting Kansas City missed the playoffs for the first time since 2011 — a surprise given the team's penchant for consistency under head coach Peter Vermes.
With a solid 2-0 over Real Salt Lake in the snow on Sunday, SKC finished an emphatic journey back to the playoffs by securing the top seed in a crowded Western Conference full of talented teams.
"We faced a lot this year, and I guess it was apropos that we play our game in a blizzard," Vermes remarked, in the final match that saw SKC go from an 11th-place finish in 2019's West race to the top rung this year – the biggest season-on-season turnaround, in terms of league position, in MLS history.
"I'm proud of the guys," he noted. "I'm also proud of the staff. And the reason being is because last year was a very tough year for us with all the injuries we suffered. It was a really tough year in that regard. And I felt bad for the guys, because I thought we had a very good team, and some things just didn't go our way, but more importantly, the injuries just were too much for us to overcome.
"What the staff didn't do as a staff is didn't panic. We've always been in it. Unfortunately, the year didn't go as we had planned, but we stayed the course, we stayed true to who we are, we remained loyal and committed to our culture."
With it, of course, comes home-field advantage throughout the three matches SKC could conceivably play en route to the 2020 MLS Cup. Home-field advantage looks different, of course, in a year where a pandemic has affected how many fans can go to matches based on public health concerns. But Vermes understands the importance of it.
"It's big for us, it's big for the club, it's big for the city. Home-field advantage is obviously much more important when you do have your full stadium, but having some fans is big. It's really big."
Highlights: Real Salt Lake 0, Sporting Kansas City 2
Even though SKC will get to play in its familiar surroundings for however deeply they can go in the playoffs, Vermes knows how challenging it will be.
"We know how tough it is in our conference. It's very tough. There's a lot of really good teams. It's a really proud moment for the club, for the staff, for the team, for the fans. It's not easy to slug away like we are right now and keep fighting through all the different things happening and finding a way to find success. It's not easy.
"I've always been a big believer when you come to these types of environments, where it's post-season, the bottom line is everybody who got there is there because they found a way and they're fighting for it. Our respect is immense for all the other teams and all the other staffs who go through this profession. It's not easy. It's tough.
"When you get to this part, the post-season, there's a difference" Vermes continued. "What happens is I don't care who you face. It's a new season, and anything can happen on any given day. These are one-game finals now."
Turning his thoughts to their first playoff opponents, the San Jose Earthquakes, Vermes noted: "It doesn't matter who we play, we have to be ready, because the other team is going to be ready. Whether it's San Jose, or anyone else, we know it's going to be a tough opponent, and we're going to have to be ready for the game."
Khiry Shelton, credited with the game-winning goal and part of an attack that kept RSL on its heels for key moments, is excited for the next phase of the 2020 season to start.
"It's amazing," he remarked, regarding sealing the West's top spot. "It's a blessing. And we've worked so hard for this. And we deserve to be on top. We've worked tremendously hard. And everyone's putting in the work and effort, not just the players, not just the staff, but the whole organization. They've put in the extra work.
"We did our job, and we ended up on top," he added. "But we're not done yet. We've still got a game to look forward to."