Sporting Kansas City has risen, but there's still a sinking feeling
Even as Sporting Kansas City has risen to the top of Major League Soccer's Western Conference standings, unpleasant memories still arise, now and again, unbidden.
SKC's fan base isn't tortured -- not exactly. Kansas City has won the league championship and two U.S. Open Cups this decade. The club has not missed the postseason since it changed its name from the Wizards in 2010.
Yet if you're wondering how Sporting's veteran core keeps itself motivated after all those past successes, look no further than a pair of recent, acutely painful playoff defeats. In an alternate universe occupied by kinder goalposts and eagle-eyed linesmen, we would be discussing a bona fide dynasty rather than a team still haunted by what might have been.
"The losses stay with you longer than the wins," Kansas City coach Peter Vermes said. And while that's often an empty and cynical, albeit accurate, sports truism, it does help explain why his team sits five points clear at the top of the West.
"As far as those losses go, there are still things that pop up and remind you of it," longtime left back Seth Sinovic told ESPN FC this week. "Those never really leave you."
The first notable loss doubled as one of the most memorable games in MLS Cup playoff history. Sporting's 2015 knockout-round match against the Timbers (who visit Children's Mercy Park on Saturday at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN/WatchESPN) at Portland's Providence Park was an epic of multiple acts.
Though Kansas City required Kevin Ellis' 87th-minute header just to force extra time, it also squandered multiple opportunities to advance. After Krisztian Nemeth's goal early in the overtime period, Sporting was three minutes from the conference semifinals before Maxi Urruti answered out of nowhere. Portland looked gassed and sapped of its competitive spirit. But Dairon Asprilla shimmed into a sliver of open space, his cross found Urruti's boot and, suddenly, the match was headed toward penalty kicks.
Once there, again, SKC had chances to win it. Ellis blasted his would-be clincher off the left post. Saad Abdul-Salaam hit nearly the exact same spot -- and wheeled away in premature triumph as the ball rolled back across the goal line, only to bounce off the right stick and out.
Portland won in the 11th round of the shootout, the rarely seen keeper-on-keeper round, when Adam Kwarasey scored and Jon Kempin did not.
Last year's loss to Seattle in the same round, roughly 150 miles up Interstate 5, was just as taxing but for different reasons. Kansas City took the game to the hosts and did more than enough to move on. In the end, it came down to a pair of controversial calls. Matt Besler's would-have-been go-ahead goal was (correctly) ruled out as marginally offside in the 53rd minute. Nelson Valdez's game winner for the Sounders was (incorrectly) allowed to stand despite his being half a body ahead of SKC's last defender when the ball was played in.
"The difference is last year, everybody in the locker room knew we had chances during the game to win it, and we gave up those moments. That was our fault," Vermes told reporters in the game's aftermath. "Last night, the opportunity was taken from us."
Suffice it to say that both losses left a lasting mark. Insult only added to injury when Portland then Seattle used their respective narrow first-round wins as springboards to MLS Cup title runs.
"It shows how close you are and how far away you still are," Vermes said this week. "You have to control your own destiny. You have to take care of your own business."
Which brings us to the present. Major League Soccer's playoff structure awards first-round byes to the top two seeds in each conference, plus home games to Nos. 3 and 4 against teams five and six respectively. Given how long it takes to sort that standing out, eight months from March through October, and how jammed together the table can be in a league flatted by the salary cap, those designations can feel arbitrary -- especially after Seattle rode a late-calendar surge to MLS Cup just last year.
Sporting, more than any other squad in the league, is all too aware just how fine those margins can be. If those knockout round games had taken place in front of its own raucous crowd, rather than up in Cascadia, who knows how recent history would have been written?
"The biggest motivation is to try to get a home game in the playoffs, either by getting a bye -- which is obviously what you really want to do -- but worst-case scenario, you definitely want to play at home," Feilhaber said. "We were definitely a good enough team to win MLS Cup. We outplayed Seattle in the game that was lost, and there were moments when we outplayed at Portland.
"If we're at home, I really like our chances in those games."
Others have looked sluggish, struggling to lock in during the stretch of the campaign regarded as filler before the stakes rise in earnest come August. Kansas City has been locked in from the opening kickoff. It has been rewarded with first-place in the West, an unbeaten record at home and the best goal-differential in the conference.
"We're definitely tuned in," said Sinovic.
Added Vermes: "I don't necessary need those [losses] to use as motivation but they definitely help."
Matt Pentz is a Seattle-based soccer reporter covering primarily the Sounders, Timbers and Whitecaps. Follow him on Twitter @mattpentz.