Sporting Kansas City’s 2019 season started with a bang: Reaching the semifinals of the CONCACAF Champions League tournament, the most prestigious soccer club tournament in North America. But it ended with a thud.
Sporting’s streak of eight straight seasons of making the playoffs, the third longest in Major League Soccer behind Seattle (10) and New York (9), officially came to a halt after a 2-1 loss at Minnesota on Wednesday night.
There was turmoil going into the match when it was announced two days earlier that midfielder Yohan Croizet left the team, three matches before the season even ended.
The forecast for this season was so promising after being one victory from reaching the MLS Cup title match last year, the respectable run in the Champions League tournament and the 7-1 win in their fourth MLS match of the season. How did Sporting find itself in this predicament?
“It’s a difficult question because I don’t think it’s one thing,” Sporting manager Peter Vermes said.
One thing has haunted Sporting, even with players who were injured early in the season returning to action, and that’s the failure to close out games on a positive note. Johnny Russell, Sporting’s second-leading goal scorer with nine recognizes that.
“We’ve conceded so many late goals as a team,” he said.
In nine matches this season, Sporting allowed a goal in the 70-minute mark or later which resulted in either a tie or a loss. And Sporting’s stinging 2-1 defeat at Portland on Sept. 7 during the height of their late-season push was symptomatic of the season.
Riding a three-match winning streak, Sporting was trying to protect a 1-0 lead and position themselves to pick up three crucial points in the team standings. But Portland stole those three points with goals in the 83rd minute and the game-winner four minutes into stoppage time.
“We’re up 1-nil and then we concede (goals) 10 minutes from the end of the game,” Vermes said. “That doesn’t build confidence up even though we just won three in a row.”
Eight days later at Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Galaxy poured it on: A 7-2 shelling that was the second time in Sporting’s history that it allowed seven goals in a regular-season games.
Vermes said one thing is responsible for the late-match slips: Fitness. The very thing he pushed them on during last season’s run in the postseason.
Sporting’s off-season was abbreviated, having played deep into November. Plus, because the team won the 2017 U.S. Open Cup, they started the season with the Champions tournament on Feb. 21 against Deportivo Toluca FC of Mexico. Vermes made few adjustments in the starting lineups early in the season, and the injuries piled up.
“When you start a season off — I’m going to use a reference point (on) all our other sports in this country — you don’t start playing in the playoffs,” he said.
Sporting’s leadership says won’t shy away from winning the U.S. Open Cup again, but it and other MLS teams know it can take the wind out of a team’s sail.
In Sporting’s case, it conceivably blew them out of this year’s MLS playoffs.
Greg Echlin is a freelance sports reporter for KCUR 89.3.