It’s about 20 minutes after Sporting Kansas City has finished off another opponent, capping the best month of May of any team in the Western Conference, and manager Peter Vermes is on the walk back from a post-match conversation with the supporters group.
Just one month ago, many in that audience not only wanted him fired — some probably still do, if we’re honest — but they actively chanted for it during a match, loud enough to seep through a broadcast. Vermes says he didn’t hear it live but was informed of it afterward.
And a month later, he brings it up unprompted.
“It actually galvanized what I was thinking because it pissed me off,” Vermes said. “So now I’m like, ‘OK, now you’re going to see.’”
He stops short of finishing the thought, short of saying what he probably wants to say. So I’ll say it for him:
Now you’ve seen.
Sporting Kansas City is playing like, well, Sporting Kansas City used to play. No team in the Western Conference finished with a better record in May than SKC’s 4-1-1 mark — after starting the season with 10 matches absent a victory.
One of the league’s primary stories of March and April is the same club that is a primary story of May — but with a much different plot.
It is stunning how quickly the about-face has arrived. Except that Vermes told us this was coming. And a man who finds enjoyment in proving any doubter imprecise must find it unusual that it now includes those who occupy seats in his home park.
Those are my words. His? He insists he’s over it. Understood the frustration that prompted those chants a month ago. Appreciated how many care. But angered in the manner it came out and what he thought it ignored — that Sporting KC was playing without its horses.
Here, though, is what makes this recent run prove it was always about more than that: Sporting KC just won back-to-back matches without its captain, Johnny Russell, and without veteran goalkeeper Tim Melia, and finished off the 2-1 win against FC Dallas with a forward pushed into emergency duty on the back line.
Sporting racked up points in May against the first-, third- and fourth-place teams in the Western Conference, among others. The club scored six goals in the past two matches without Russell, who has finished first or second on the team in goals for five years running.
But I thought they couldn’t win without their guys?
Oh, yeah, about that. They are good enough to win without a couple of pieces. Always should have been.
As it turns out, what Sporting KC had been missing all along was not only key players but the confidence they could win without those players. All involved should take at least some blame in that, same as they deserve credit now. There is relation between the two — confidence and full roster — but Sporting took it to the extreme. They are a prime example, albeit far from the first example, of the role confidence plays in sports.
“You could see it coming in training,” Vermes said. “Once we got the guys just back in training, you could see the way it changed the confidence in the group.”
To be sure, it’s starting to feel more than plausible that maybe there was something to that. We didn’t really need evidence that a healthier team would be a better team. But this drastic?
It feels a bit like a Watch out, Sporting KC is coming omen. Yes, we are talking about a six-match stretch in a season that encompasses 34 of these, and Sporting has robbed itself of any wiggle room. It has to turn six games into 12 games, and 12 games into 18.
You can excuse some doubt given just how dreadful the opening two-plus months of the season unfolded. You can understand if maybe we need to see a little bit more before declaring they are back.
But that’s really the question that awaits, right? The one we all want to know after a 13-point month that was not only productive but entertainingly productive.
Is Sporting Kansas City back?
Well, I asked. First to Peter Vermes, who offered this: “We’re close,” he said quickly.
And then to Daniel Salloi, who scored once more Wednesday and had three goals and two assists during the six May matches. Salloi literally laughed at the question, and really, it’s not exactly the best question to ask a player trained to think one day at a time. A thoughtful reply though:
“Yes and no,” he said. “Obviously, this month has been very good, but I think for the club’s standard, no. We want to be much higher in the table. So not yet. But playing-wise, yes, we are much closer to the Sporting style. We look much more confident.”
There’s that word again. That observation again. Inside the Sporting KC locker room, nobody was talking about who they were playing without.
And you can’t help but wonder if that too has a relationship — focusing more on who is playing and being confident that group is enough.
Because it should be. Especially now. Sporting, which moved just two points shy of the playoff line, plays four of its next six games at home, and here’s the conference standings position of those six opponents: sixth, eighth, third, 13th, 12th and sixth.
It provides an opportunity to make this turnaround real. To make it more than a statistical anomaly.
Look at how it fits now:
Winless in February.
Winless in March.
Winless in April.
Best in the West in May.
The potential for a hell of a story.
June, though, has arrived.