Earthquakes-Sporting Kansas City Preview
Peter Vermes says Sporting Kansas City finished top of the Western Conference on merit as he laid down a marker ahead of Sunday's MLS Cup playoff opener with outsiders San Jose Earthquakes.
Sporting finished the regular campaign with three successive victories without conceding to earn the status as top dogs in the West for the second time in three seasons.
However, with the coronavirus pandemic having a huge impact on the fixture list, meaning certain teams did not face each other, some have attempted to downplay Sporting's achievement.
Vermes insists his side deserves its status as a No. seed, though, as it looks to reach its first MLS Cup final since 2013.
"You don't achieve first place because you're a bad team," he said. "I just don't know how that happens. I think that if we were a 'one-hit wonder', a team that has been really poor over a consistent number of years and then all of a sudden out of nowhere we achieved this, sure, doubt it, question it.
"At the end, I don't really care. What matters to me is how we think about our team, how our guys think about themselves and how they go into their games."
Sporting has a favorable draw, with the winners of the Minnesota United and Colorado Rapids tie awaiting in the next knockout round.
San Jose face a huge task against a side it has lost 13 of their last 14 away meetings with, but the Earthquakes have defied the odds to get this far and coach Matias Almeyda says they can be proud of their efforts up to this point.
"Reaching the playoffs was our main objective," he said. "It has been a year of uncertainty off the field - the same uncertainty that we have before playing this game. When you play tournaments with playoffs, you have to first play another tournament to get that far.
"I told my players that it is not part of my being to give up. I've gone through very good and bad times in my life and my football career. I've built my coaching career around this mantra to never give up."
Sporting Kansas City - Johnny Russell
Russell was this week named as Sporting's MVP for 2020, but he has gone five games without scoring or assisting a goal. With the availability of Alan Pulido and Gadi Kinda hanging in the balance, Vermes needs Russell to step up this weekend.
San Jose Earthquakes - Chris Wondolowski
The big stage calls for the big name, and in Wondolowski the visiting side has a player who has scored more MLS goals than anyone else.
The veteran striker intends to play for at least one more season, but with his San Jose contract set to expire, this could be his last outing for the club he has represented for more than a decade.
- This will be the third time Kansas City and San Jose meet in the playoffs, but the first since 2004. The Quakes beat Kansas City 3-2 in extra time in the 2003 Conference Finals while the then-Wizards beat San Jose 3-2 on aggregate in the Conference semi-finals the following season.
- Sporting Kansas City finished the season with three straight wins, all with clean sheets - the first time it's achieved that feat since a four-match winning streak, all with clean sheets in August 2018. Sporting have scored in each of its last 15 home matches, including all nine this season, dating back to July 2019.
- San Jose had the worst defensive start in MLS history, allowing 38 goals through 13 matches - five more than any other team at that stage of a season in league history. The Earthquakes have allowed just 13 goals in their final 10 matches. San Jose conceded 40 goals in nine losses this season (4.89 per match) compared to just 11 goals in their other 14 matches (W8 D6 – 0.79 per match).
- Kansas City is traditionally one of the toughest places to play in the postseason as Sporting has lost only two of its 18 home playoff matches dating back to 2000 (W14 D2). Its last home playoff match, however, was a 3-2 defeat to Portland in 2018.
- This will be the Earthquakes' second playoff appearance since 2012, with a 5-0 defeat at Vancouver in 2017 their only playoff game in the last eight seasons. San Jose has advanced in the postseason just one time since its 2003 MLS Cup triumph, getting past the Red Bulls 3-2 on aggregate in the 2010 Conference semifinals.
Updated November 20, 2020