MLS Footnotes: Sporting Kansas City sticking around in playoff hunt

MLS Footnotes: Sporting Kansas City sticking around in playoff hunt

Published May. 27, 2023 11:48 a.m. ET

Editor's Note: MLS Footnotes takes you inside the major talking points around the league and across American soccer. 

Sporting Kansas City was at a crossroads.  

Winless 10 games into the 2023 MLS campaign, it looked as if things could get worse for SKC before getting better. A daunting trip to CONCACAF champion Seattle Sounders was next. An even trickier away match, at last year's MLS Cup and Supporters Shield double winner LAFC, loomed two weeks later.

"At that point of the season, I can tell you we were mentally stuck. We were all struggling. We were all suffering," Sporting defender Andreu Fontàs told FOX Sports on Friday. "In those moments when you're so low, it's very easy for the group to break up. We didn't."  


Instead, SKC stunned Seattle to halt the skid. Peter Vermes' team routed Minnesota United at home in their next outing, then went to Los Angeles on May 18 and erased a 1-0 deficit to earn a share of the spoils. Injured players were returning to training or regaining their match fitness. Sporting was on its way. Or so it seemed: Last week, SKC lost 4-0 at expansion darling St. Louis City.

"There's a lot of different things that happened in that game that I could talk about, but I don't want to," Vermes said of a match — the team's fifth in 14 days — marred by questionable officiating, though he acknowledged that his team was outplayed. "It wasn't a bad outing, especially looking at where we had been." 

Still, there are no moral victories in professional sports. Only results matter. And with two straight home games coming up for SKC the first time this year — seven of the next 10 are at Children's Mercy Park, starting on Sunday against the Portland Timbers (3 p.m. ET, FOX/FOX Deportes) — we'll soon find out if Vermes' squad can climb the standings and position itself to challenge for a playoff spot down the stretch.

"The crazy thing is we're not that far away with a couple wins," Vermes said. There's no doubt that the Timbers are a beatable foe; eighth place Portland is one point above the postseason cutoff. The more pressing question is which version of Sporting Kansas City shows up?  

"We've been a different team since the Seattle game," Fontàs insisted. "We showed that we can beat the best in this league. That's the team that we are, and we have to prove it on Sunday." 


1. Let's play two     

Sunday features a pair of nationally televised contests, with Nashville SC-Columbus Crew capping Week 15 (8:30 p.m. ET, FS1/FOX Deportes). Second in the East behind Supporters Shield leader Cincinnati, Nashville is looking to secure a fourth consecutive home win for the first time since entering MLS in 2020. Meantime, the Crew haven't been at all good on the road, losing six of their last nine away.

For Wilfried Nancy's side, the key to stopping the hosts is stopping Hany Mukhtar. Easy to say, harder to do. The German, who scored twice in Columbus' comeback win over Charlotte last weekend, has scored or assisted on 14 of Nashville's 19 goals in 2023.  

The full Week 15 slate:  

2. Open Cup quarterfinals set  

There were two more "cupsets" in the U.S. Open Cup midweek, with the Columbus Crew and Charlotte FC losing to the lower division Pittsburgh Riverhounds and Birmingham Legion respectively. Pittsburgh visits Cincinnati in the quarterfinals of the 109-year-old knockout competition in early June. Birmingham will host Inter Miami.  

The other side of the bracket is an all-MLS affair. After topping Austin in the round of 16, the Chicago Fire will welcome Houston next; the Dynamo eliminated Minnesota United. Meantime, Real Salt Lake beat their Rocky Mountain rival Colorado Rapids for the second time in four days. RSL faces the LA Galaxy in the quarters.  

3. Galaxy far, far away 

The Galaxy will gladly take Tuesday's Open Cup win over an LAFC team stocked mostly with reserves, but the most successful club in MLS history still currently sits dead last among the league's 29 teams.  

The two most recent losses were particularly ugly: a 2-0 defeat in Columbus on May 17 followed by a 3-0 stomping versus D.C. United in Washington. Greg Vanney's side returns to Carson after this weekend's game against Charlotte, but after that four the Galaxy's next five matches are on the road.  

Vanney has to be hoping that the spectacular solo goal Riqui Puig pulled off in Tuesday's 2-0 triumph gets the Spaniard going in MLS play. The 23-year-old Barcelona product has scored just once in 12 league games this season.

4. Red alert  

Over in the Eastern Conference, another marquee club also sits in basement. Toronto FC, which has a league high payroll of almost $26 million (the Galaxy are second at $23.5 million), has lost three of its last four with a trip to streaking D.C. set for Saturday. After last week's stoppage time defeat in Austin, Italian star Federico Bernardeschi made headlines with comments that seemed directed squarely at coach Bob Bradley.  

"We need to change something," Bernardeschi said. "We need more tactics. We need an idea of how we play." 

On Wednesday, Bradley told the Canadian press that Bernardeschi was "out of line." "Fede was wrong for speaking that way after the game," the veteran manager said. On Friday, Bradley revealed that Bernardeschi — the fourth highest-paid player in MLS — will not play on Saturday.  

After scoring eight goals in 13 games upon arriving midseason from Juventus in 2022 Bernardeschi has just three goals in 12 matches this year. Compatriot and fellow designated player Lorenzo Insigne has been even less effective, scoring just once in seven appearances in an injury plagued 2023. Insigne is the league's No. 2 earner. Together, the pair account for more than half of the Reds' salary spend.  

A scathing report in The Athletic on Friday detailed the depths of the dysfunction inside TFC. It also painted a damning off-the-field picture of Bernardeschi and Insigne, who less than two years ago helped lead Italy to the European title.

5. Quakes duo fires U.S. to U-20 World Cup group title 

Following wins over Ecuador and Fiji, the U.S. under-20 men's national team beat Slovakia 2-0 on Friday afternoon to finish atop Group B. Forward Cade Cowell opened the scoring with his second goal in as many games while Niko Tsakiris, Cowell's San Jose Earthquakes teammate, sealed the three points with a strike during second half stoppage time.  

The U.S. hasn't allowed a goal through its first three games in Argentina. The Americans will face an opponent to be determined in next week's quarterfinal.

Doug McIntyre is a soccer writer for FOX Sports. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer with ESPN and Yahoo Sports, and he has covered United States men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Follow him on Twitter at @ByDougMcIntyre.


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