Sporting KC take an away goal into the second leg of their Western Conference semi-final against Real Salt Lake. All they need, therefore, is a clean sheet. Their strength, defending, is enough.
Sporting Kansas City are on the verge of a Western Conference Final. It would be the first time since 2013, the year they won the MLS Cup, that they have reached such a stage. This is a momentous time.
In the last four seasons, KC have lost in the knockout round each and every time. Much like their city NFL counterparts, they are the masters of the regular season but failures in the postseason.
This year, though, things are different. There is a refreshing feel around this club. In year’s past, they always relied on a stifling defence. It was a consistent, structured, organised backline, but when the playoffs came around, the team, without goals at the other end, was limited.
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But this season, thanks to the emergence of players like Daniel Salloi and Johnny Russell, only three teams in all of MLS scored more goals than the Wizards. When paired with the same defence that conceded only 40 goals last season, the third-best tally in MLS, KC are a formidable force. And make no mistake, although they now have goals on their side, this is a team built in the mould of Peter Vermes. They are hard to beat.
It is this foundational quality that will serve them well in the second leg of their Western Conference semi-final. KC host Real Salt Lake after a 1-1 draw on the road in the first leg. That away goal, as is so often the case, is absolutely critical. Vermes, I am sure, is drilling into his players: a clean sheet will yield a Western Conference Championship.
That is the strength of this KC team. Ike Opara at centre-half. Tim Melia between the sticks. Graham Zusi at full back. A combative and screening midfield. And all under the tactical nous of Vermes. This is a team that knows how to defend, rejoices in its defensive success, and revels in the challenge of denying the opposition joy.
For Sporting KC, they must merely do what they do best: keep a clean sheet. They have kept 13 in 34 games. That is quite a staggering rate, and they have improved. They have only conceded more than one goal on two occasions in their last 13 games. And with that away goal in hand, they know that Salt Lake will have to dictate the game. They are the ones that need to score.
Vermes, as is his way, can sit deep, soak up the pressure and play on the counter-attack. This is a defend-first team. They have been throughout Vermes’ tenure. And that quality has been evident this season.
On Sunday, when they look to make history with their first Western Conference Championship appearance in five years, all KC must do is rest on their strength.