Sporting Kansas City has already secured some hardware with a U.S. Open Cup title, but adding to it with a second MLS Cup in three seasons will require emerging as the bottom seed in a vaunted Western Conference.
The road begins Thursday night in Portland, where Peter Vermes’ club takes on the streaking Timbers in the knockout round, and if nothing else, it has plenty of success in the series to fall back on.
Sixth-seeded Kansas City might have suffered in the table with its move to the more difficult West as part of realignment before this season, but the new 12-team playoff format is also allowing for its season to continue.
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It concluded in fine fashion with a 2-1 home win over MLS Cup holder Los Angeles on Sunday to secure the conference’s last playoff spot.
"It was never a doubt in my mind if we were going to make the playoffs or not," Dom Dwyer told the club’s official website after scoring the 65th-minute winner. "Obviously we had to get a result tonight, but I’ve been here four years now and we’ve made the playoffs every year. This is probably the best team I’ve been on during these four years."
Sporting, one of five teams to win the MLS Cup multiple times, is a club that does even more damage at home than the typical MLS side with its two losses matching Dallas, Los Angeles and New England for the fewest in the league. That’s not an advantage it’ll be able to fall back on in the single-game knockout format of the opening round, and it’s just 4-9-4 on the road.
Third-seeded Portland was more balanced but wasn’t particularly beatable at home at 8-3-6, including Sunday’s 4-1 win over Colorado. It established a franchise record with 15 wins, and coach Caleb Porter said a moment of reflection is important after the 34-game regular season.
"I think we have a lot to feel good about," Porter said. " … But the biggest thing we can feel good about is that we’re going into the playoffs in a position of strength, which is the whole point of the regular season."
Against Kansas City, that’s debatable. Portland’s previous home game was a 1-0 loss to Sporting on Oct. 3. And while the Timbers might be plenty confident having outscored opponents 10-3 over three straight wins to end the season since that loss, there’s also a massive scoreless stretch against Kansas City to consider: 392 minutes in league play.
Sporting is 2-0-2 in the series – all shutouts with three played in Portland – since the Timbers last scored in the 58th minute of a 3-2 win in April 2013.
"Playing KC won’t be easy," said Porter, whose club outshot Sporting 35-16 in the last two matches, both at home. "They’re a good team, and they’ve matched up well against us. We felt like we deserved more out of the last two games."
The Timbers might get the finishing they were lacking in those games if Darlington Nagbe and top scorer Fanendo Adi can carry their hot streaks into the postseason.
MLS Player of the Week Nagbe scored twice and added an assist against Colorado after also scoring in a 5-2 win at Los Angeles on Oct. 18. Adi added to his career year with six goals in his last five matches, only going without one against Sporting. Nagbe has two goals in eight matches against Kansas City, while Adi is scoreless in four.
Portland missed the playoffs last season after reaching the West final in 2013, and Kansas City lost a road knockout game to New York a season after winning the title.