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Sporting KC has its skeptics, but this could be where the old narrative ends

Check out all the goals from a wild Week 23 in MLS, including Seattle's comeback, a six-goal thriller in Orlando and much more.

Grand, sweeping narratives have little patience for nuance.

They don't particularly care that Sporting Kansas City was a few good breaks from defeating the eventual MLS Cup champions in both 2015 and '16. SKC coach Peter Vermes grumbles that if video review had been in place then, his team would have beaten Portland in Providence Park and Seattle at CenturyLink Field in back-to-back playoffs, and they were oh-so-close to triumph even without VAR.

The bare facts of it, however, state that Kansas City has gone one-and-out in each of the past three postseasons -- those two, and again in Houston last year. Trace the arcs of their recent seasons and a clear pattern emerges: hot starts followed by prolonged slumps either in the summer or autumn that doom Sporting's hopes for finally hosting one of those knockout-round matches.

And so the narrative has hardened, as much as Vermes might push back against it.

Headed into Saturday's showdown at comparatively ascendant LAFC (10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN+), Kansas City has lost 4 of 6. Although last weekend's victory over fellow playoff hopeful Houston will raise spirits for now, an upcoming slate heavy with Western Conference contenders looms ominously.

You can hear a familiar sentiment gaining in volume around MLS: same old Sporting.

Vermes disagrees with the premise. For one, he makes the fair point that the majority of the teams in the league would gladly take seven consecutive playoff appearances, culminating with an MLS Cup win, even if it means often falling short once in the bracket.

"The conversation might be different with a team that hasn't made the playoffs in a number of years," the veteran head coach told ESPN FC in a phone interview.

Every club in MLS goes through ebbs and flows, he adds. Such is life in a salary-capped league with fine margins separating the top tier from the basement dwellers. While also true, this nihilism goes a little bit easy on the team whose highs and lows have tended to be more extreme, and whose long lulls genuinely have cost them valuable playoff position for three years running.

The last argument against the Sporting-always-fades-late trope is that, as tempting is it is to read into these patterns and craft broad narratives, every season is its own, unique ecosystem.

Yes, the 2015 team really did collapse down the stretch. It was three points off the top of the West in mid-August with four games in hand, only to lose most of them and finish down in sixth. The 2016 edition, however, was probably the best team in the Western Conference when the playoffs started. It frankly dominated long stretches of play at CenturyLink only to be undone by a pair of controversial offside calls.

That is the one that most burns Vermes. "If we would have had VAR, then our goal would have counted and their goal wouldn't have counted and we actually would have won 1-0. That's a big difference."

Last year's team was heavily snake-bit by injury in the final few months of the season. Maybe that's a silver lining, considering all of the guys who have gone down already during Sporting's recent slump.

"Maybe it's because we haven't had a home playoff game, maybe we've had some injuries in the latter part of seasons," Vermes said. "This year, we've had some of those injuries in the middle, so now maybe we'll have a full roster to choose from. ... And be a little bit more prepared, selection-wise, going into the playoffs."

The Western Conference again looks there for the taking. Dallas is in first but raises the usual question about the lack of elite-level game-breakers. LAFC can't close out matches. Portland looks to be the most complete team but is still adjusting to its first-year head coach. Among the rest of the bunch, and even with its recent swoon, Kansas City is as well positioned as anybody.

"We continue to be competitive within the conference," Vermes said. "Compared to the Eastern Conference, think it probably took a little longer for teams to get in form, if you will, or find themselves."

The West is as fluid, and unpredictable, as it has been in years. Sporting will hope the same description applies to itself: capable of surprises and able to break from the path upon which it has so reliably trod in recent years.

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