KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Sporting Kansas City made a nearly impossible turnaround to make the MLS Cup Playoffs.
In 2023, Sporting Kansas City started off the season without a win through their first 10 matches going 0-3-7. The team only scored three goals in regular season play and was even struggling to take shots.
Their lone win was in the round of 64 in the U.S. Open Cup over NAPSL club Tulsa Athletic.
Key players like forward Alan Pulido and midfielder Gadi Kinda were working their way back from injury.
SKC’s supporter group, The Kansas City Cauldron, penned a letter condemning not only the play on the field but the club’s “lack of community and overall not being valued.”
Through it all, the team and head coach Peter Vermes never lost faith in themselves. Vermes hounded on the point that the team had the players and the talent to turn it around, they just needed time.
They had to continue to work together and build. And then it started to show on the pitch.
Sporting got their first win in May against the Seattle Sounders. Since that win, they led the MLS Western Conference in points, wins and goals per game since the start of May.
Some websites gave the club just above a 0% chance to advance to the MLS Cup Playoffs in August.
SKC only lost seven matches since the start of May.
The turnaround season led up to Decision Day where Sporting was in 10th place, two points outside of a playoff spot.
They needed to beat Minnesota United FC on Saturday night to go along with a draw or a loss from one of the three teams in front of them: FC Dallas, San Jose Earthquakes and the Portland Timbers.
Dallas beat the LA Galaxy handedly 4-1, San Jose drew with Austin FC 1-1 and Houston Dynamo FC beat Portland 3-1.
Sporting rose to the eighth seed with a 3-1 win over Minnesota.
No other team in MLS history has made the playoffs after 10 winless matches to start the season.
Vermes took his time to look the team’s doubters in the eyes and gave them the grief that they gave the double blue early in the season.
“For those that doubted the quality of our team, I’m sure a lot of them weren’t here tonight,” Vermes said.
Throughout the 68 halves of Sporting’s 34 regular season matches, Vermes said there is only one half that gave him concern about the talent on his team.
“For the fact that they were able to be committed, focused, they had pride, they worked.
“To put us into a position where in the last game of the season we still had a chance to make the playoffs is truly a testament to them, to their belief, and how competitive they are.”
Ownership also didn’t waver in their support for Vermes and the team.
“Obviously they had questions. I had answers. We had great conversations, and I think it ultimately led to where we sit today.”
The sporting director in his 14th year as HC of SKC will step into his 11th postseason appearance when Sporting hosts San Jose for the Wild Card match. That appearance ties Bob Bradley for the third-most by a head coach in MLS history.
Vermes commended his team for their composure to jump to a 2-0 lead on Minnesota on Decision Day that ended with a 3-1 win.
“When you look at the significance of a game like tonight, it is not easy to play in that game,” Vermes continued.
“A lot of guys, they get so nervous that they use up half of their energy not even playing the game. But our guys have been through such ups and downs over the course of the season in all these different ways that they have learned to scratch, bite, claw and fight back and get themselves into all these positions, or get us into this position.”
“I knew that we were ready for this game.”
Captain Johnny Russell scored the first and last goal for Sporting on Saturday. Not a bad night for the veteran striker who was listed as questionable with a groin injury and didn’t practice all week.
“I was struggling coming into the game but I’m not about to let my team down. We’ve all worked so hard this year,” Russell said.
“Everyone involved at the club has sacrificed, put in the time, put in the work, not given up, kept the belief that we were still capable of doing it and we gave ourselves a chance and that’s all it was leading into the game. We knew that we needed other results to go our way but we had the belief that we could go and win that game and other teams would drop points. Luckily for us, they did.”
Forward Dániel Sallói had two assists on the night and said the team didn’t check scores or anything when they went into halftime up 2-0.
He had to find the words to describe how the team turned the season around.
“I’m gonna be honest I don’t even know,” he said. “We were struggling and things just started to click. You kind of let [the] pressure go, you get to that point and try to focus on yourself so everybody’s doing their part and working as a team and sounds cliche but that’s what it is.
“Very proud of us for playing through it and believing in it.”
And the cherry on top was that Sporting played some of their best soccer of the season when everything was on the line.
“The quality of which we played at tonight, the level was tremendous. And so I’m very, very proud of the guys, I’m very happy for them because they got rewarded for their commitment,” Vermes said.
If Sporting beats San Jose in the single elimination Wild Card match, they move on to Round One to face St. Louis City SC.
St. Louis is an upstart club in their first season that sits at the top of the West and the cross-state rivals who have already beaten SKC twice this season.
While there are still games to be played, Vermes and his team will keep looking to work and push themselves forward. They grinded themselves out of a muddy situation and feel battle-tested to a point where no other club can touch their confidence and experience.
“I think you’ll look at our form since those first 10 games: We are right up there with the best teams in this league,” Russell said.
“For the naysayers and the doubters, no problem,” Vermes said.
“Keep doing it because we’ll keep fighting and clawing and making our way.”
Sporting kicks off against San Jose on Wednesday at 8:39 p.m.