Benny Feilhaber isn’t buying what many are selling, that Sporting Kansas City is backing its way into the playoffs as it had in recent seasons. But he isn’t dismissing anyone’s frustrations with the club’s recent string of results either.
In fact, he’s among those upset.
“I don’t think we’re backing into the playoffs,” he said confidently on Sunday. “I think we’re just creating a much more difficult path to get to the finals.”
Feilhaber spoke candidly after Sunday’s scoreless draw with the Houston Dynamo. The club had just booked its seventh-straight trip to the MLS Cup Playoffs, but you wouldn’t have sensed that inside the Sporting KC locker room, where players just sort of sat around quiety in disbelief that it had failed yet again to get the job done.
“Playing a (knockout round) game, which now seems almost inevitable, then playing potentially away from home, which out of all the teams in the league, we probably know better than any how difficult that can be, it’s just frustrating. But we’re going to do everything we can in Salt Lake to get the home game. We know we have to win.”
While a first-round bye is still in play — Sporting KC would need to beat Real Salt Lake this weekend and see both Portland and Seattle lose or draw — odds are that the club will yet again find itself in the one-off, midweek battle.
When, where and against who will all be decided this weekend. Some of it Sporting KC can control, but a good amount will be left to chance — exactly what Sporting KC hoped to avoid, and what it had been doing up until a few short weeks ago.
“It’s what we’ve talked about for 10 months. We had been doing everything really well, but we’re not finishing the right way right now,” Feilhaber said. “We have one game to right our wrongs from the last four games, but it’s a much more difficult task now at hand than it was four games ago.
“There’s not much to say that can describe how disappointing this right now.”
The decline has been more subtle than it had been in recent seasons, and depending on who you ask, there isn’t any one significant factor. The team has largely avoided injuries. Peter Vermes has rotated his roster when necessary to keep players fresh. They haven’t lost in back-to-back since May.
Even arguing against the Dom Dwyer trade is problematic. Forget the intricacies of the system, and how Sporting KC had been moving away from Dwyer’s skillset with this roster, he’s only scored three goals in Orlando while Diego Rubio has bagged five goals in the regular season alone since July 6. Daniel Salloi has come on in his own right, too.
Still, as recently as September 28, Sporting KC had a 71 percent chance to lock up a top-two spot in the Western Conference, that according to Paul Carr and FiveThirtyEight’s Soccer Power Index.
That fell to 56 percent by the start of October, after a significant home loss to the Vancouver Whitecaps reset a 24-game home unbeaten streak, and then 32 percent entering Sunday’s matchup with the Dynamo.
By final whistle, that had nosedived to 4 percent.
Goal scoring has certainly played a factor. Since July 1, Sporting KC has scored one or fewer goals 11 times during regular season action. In the last 11 league matches alone, only 11 balls have found the back of the net despite 176 total shots and 55 put on frame during that stretch.
Despite having the league’s best defense and a goalkeeper putting up historic numbers, that number won’t cut it.
“Unfortunately (we’re in our situation) because of missed chances,” Vermes said following the game on Sunday. “That’s what it does to you. Missed chances, if you don’t score, puts you in that position.”
Vermes continued: “If you can’t score, it always bothers you.”
Sporting KC can right some wrongs on Sunday against a Real Salt Lake side with nothing to lose and everything to gain. Sporting KC can even secure a home playoff game without any additional help, something players and ownership have desired since 2013’s MLS title.
But having to jockey for positioning on Decision Day once again isn’t sitting well with anyone right now.
“We’ve put ourselves in a really difficult position after getting two points in our last four games,” Feilhaber said. “That’s not been good enough. Now we’re in a similar position that we’ve been in the last three years. We have to get a result and then scoreboard watch.
“It’s incredibly frustrating to not get the result we’ve needed in these last four games.”