Sporting KC takes 10-Count again in MLS playoffs

Same song, fourth verse. Since Sporting KC won the 2013 MLS Cup, they have lost four consecutive MLS knockout-round losses in the MLS playoffs.

This year, it was Houston taking SKC out in extra-time 1-0 the third time in the past seven years the Dynamo dispatched Sporting in the playoffs.  This may bode well for Houston as each of previous two years, the team which has eliminated Sporting KC has gone on to win the championship.

Sporting’s season turned when goalie Tim Melia suffered a hamstring injury. More on that later.

In some ways, this might have been the most frustrating of the four playoff failures as the team seemed to be on their way to a first-round bye and possibly even a top seed in the Western Conference.

After beating the New York Red Bulls, 2-1, to win the Open Cup September 20 at Children’s Mercy Park – their second trophy in the last three years and third since 2012 – Sporting next claimed a 2-1 win over the L.A. Galaxy September 24 to move their MLS regular season record to 12-6-11, and was just one point shy of the top spot in the conference.

They were on a three-game winning streak and had a chance to clinch a playoff spot with nearly a month left to play.

Then disaster struck.

After a home loss to Vancouver, Sporting looked to grab a playoff spot in Minnesota, October 7, and possibly take a big stride towards a first-round bye.

However, Melia was felled by a hamstring injury, leaving the game in the 59th minute with a 1-0 lead. Minnesota United tied the match in the 83rd minute.

Melia, the team’s Most Valuable Player, would not return this year and Sporting would not win again.

His replacement, Andrew Dykstra, did a creditable job – allowing four goals, plus an own goal, with ten saves in three-plus games – but the team played tentatively without Melia and often did not effectively press the attack until late in the match, perhaps fearful of giving up a counterattack without their stalwart keeper.

The club managed just three goals in its final six matches, and just one over their last 337 minutes of the season.

Melia’s 0.78 goals against average over 31 starts reflected a defensive focus for Sporting.  After allowing 41 goals in 2016, the club easily led the MLS by permitting just 29 goals this year, the fewest allowed in the league since Sporting gave up 27 in 2012.

Club management felt too often last year the team yielded too many late goals which cost them points, and decided to go with a possession-style attack building up from the back to get a sure shot as opposed to the more open style of attack to which MLS teams are accustomed. Ironically, it was a Houston late goal that ended the KC season.

While the offense took a while to get a feel for the new style, the defensive focus paid immediate dividends with Sporting registering a shutout in six of their first nine matches, running out to a 5-1-3 mark after two months of play.

The offense continued to sputter into the summer, suffering four shutouts over an eight-game stretch as manager Peter Vermes tried a variety of configurations. The club managed just three wins from May 7 to July 22 and continued to struggle offensively. Eventually, Vermes made the largest intra-league trade in MLS history, dealing striker Dom Dwyer to Orlando City SC on July 25 for $1.6 million in allocation money.

“It’s never an easy decision when you’re moving a player, especially a player like Dom who’s had so much impact to our club, positive impact, on and off the field,” Vermes said.  “From that perspective it’s going to be very difficult to see him go.”

Vermes said they received a number of inquiries about Dwyer.

“The situation escalated to a point where it was a deal we really had to consider and, unfortunately, sometimes that’s the way it goes in the salary-cap world,” he said. “But at the same time, we’re provided with a bunch of resources that we’ll be able to use, not only in the short term, but also in the long term, to be able to look at the fluidity of any MLS roster and for us to try to improve it. We think that these resources are going to be used in a way that are going to help us evolve our team and our roster.”

Dwyer was the club’s all-time second-leading scorer with 57 goals over parts of six seasons.

At the time there was much speculation Vermes would use that allocation money to bring in a seasoned attacker from overseas, but instead Diego Rubio was promoted to a regular starting spot.

“The roster’s never done; never has been done, never will be done,” Vermes said. “It’s something we constantly look at to try to improve. I have a lot of confidence in the players we have on our current roster.”

Rubio, whose possession-style of play better fits the Sporting attack, collected five goals and two assists in nine starts after the Dwyer trade.  Dwyer finished with four goals and four assists in 11 starts for Orlando City, which missed the playoffs by a wide margin and had a 2-7-4 record after the deal.

The club continued to rotate Gerso Fernandes, Daniel Salloi and Latif Blessing through the wings, but the offense once again sputtered as the season wound to a close.

Sporting KC finished the year 12-9-13 and held the Western Conference No. 5 seed.

The Dwyer trade is a signal more moves are likely in the off-season. The core group that the club has relied upon since their 2013 MLS Cup win – Matt Besler, Graham Zusi, Benny Feilhaber and Seth Sinovic – are all over 30, as is long-time regular Roger Espinoza.

The club is looking to get younger in the future, which includes Lee’s Summit-native Erik Palmer-Brown. That will allow Vermes to make good use of the allocation money acquired for Dwyer.

“We’ve got a bunch of resources that hopefully can help us acquire another player at some point,” he said. “I don’t know if it’ll be in this window or it’ll be in the next, but again, it’s not like we haven’t been looking, and we’ll always stay on top of that. The roster’s a fluid document as far as I look at it.”

As Sporting KC tries to extend their string of seven straight playoff appearances — only the Seattle Sounders and Red Bulls have longer active post-season streaks — their 2018 roster may look quite a bit different.

If it helps break the Sporting KC streak of one-and-done in the playoffs, that’s probably a good thing.

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Article by Marc Bowman

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