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Are You a Bad Fan if You Want Sporting KC to Fail?

Sporting KC can sneak into the 2023 playoffs, but is it wrong to want more? A look at their playoff history and recent struggles.



Credit: Thad Bell

The 2023 MLS season has been a weird one for Sporting Kansas City. They came out of the gate and failed to win for 10 straight games (0-7-3) and only scored three goals in that time. In the next 23 games, they’ve gone 11-7-5 for 1.65 points per game (ppg) adding 42 goals in that time.

If they had sustained that success over a full season (which they obviously didn’t, but humor me), they would be the fifth best team in all of Major League Soccer and second in the Western Conference. They would only be behind the Supporters Shield winning FC Cincinnati, Orlando City, St. Louis City SC and the Philadelphia Union, in that order.

If ifs and buts were candy and nuts…

Instead, Sporting KC find themselves fighting for their playoff lives. They currently sit in 10th place in the Western Conference, one point behind FC Dallas and two points behind the Portland Timbers and San Jose Earthquakes. If Sporting KC win on Decision Day against Minnesota United (equal with SKC on points with everything to play for) and one of the three teams above them fail to win, then they’ll sneak in.

This is what sparked a recent debate in the KC Soccer Journal Slack and again on the Shades of Blue Soccer Show on Monday (I encourage you to listen to the show, this was one line in a much broader discussion around this topic). It even led to a line being said that you aren’t a good fan if you want Sporting KC to fail to make the playoffs. Even saying you aren’t a fan at all.

The counter argument to that, is it wrong for you to want better than this for your team?

“Everyone Makes the Playoffs”

I uttered this line many times at the beginning of the season when Sporting KC were struggling. It’s not exactly right, but a lot of teams get in.

Slipping into the play-in game (I’d argue the playoffs start after 8th and 9th play their game), isn’t really a high bar of success. Just over 62 percent of all teams in MLS make the playoffs with the format change brought about this year. If we want to say the play-in game doesn’t count (again, you should have to win it), then it’s down to just over 55 percent getting in.

Let’s compare that to the other major sports in America.

In the National Basketball League, 53.3 percent get into the playoffs. The National Hockey League is a little more exclusive, letting in exactly half (50 percent) of their teams. It’s better still in the National Football League, where only 43.75 percent get in. They are the most exclusive in Major League Baseball, where only 40 percent of the teams get in, and that’s a recent increase.

Maybe it’s an American Soccer problem. The USL Championship, the second tier, let in 66.6 percent of their 24 teams into the playoffs this season. That’s just silly.

Why ‘Playoffs’ Matter

If Sporting KC sneak into the playoffs on Decision Day, that’ll mean they’ve made the playoffs 11 of the last 13 seasons. If they miss, obviously that’s 10 of 13 they’ll have made it. And that’s exactly the way they’ll phrase it. In a story that ran on our prior site before the conversion to KCSJ, my colleague Robert Rusert got a quote from Jake Reid ahead of the season that upset a lot of people.

“I love that our fans have a high standard high because we have as high, if not higher,” said Reid. “We don’t start a year without talking about winning trophies and making the playoffs. You can say two of the last four we’ve missed; I would say two of the last 12 we’ve missed. It’s perspective.”

I personally could see them using just making the play-in game as ‘two of the last 13 we’ve missed…’ Or if they don’t make it, it’ll be how they made it 10 of 13 seasons. It was a quote that set off part of the fan base and I can hardly blame them. It is much more reasonable to phrase it as having missed two of four right now (or two of five if they fail against Minnesota).

Sports is a ‘what have you done for me lately’ kind of business. Fair or not, that’s how the business works. Look at the New England Patriots. Bill Belichick is suffering a terrible season for the New England Patriots. Sure, he won seven Super Bowls, but there are people calling for his job. Peter Vermes has a really good track record too (not one of Belichick’s caliber, though). At my real job (I’m sure it’s stunning you to discover this doesn’t pay the bills), when you apply for a position, they really focus on your last year or two. If we are focusing on two years of Sporting KC, it’s not good enough.

Beyond the team remembering only missing two of the last 13, most people don’t remember what seed the team was. In 2014 and 2015, they were the last seed to make the playoffs. 2016 and 2017 weren’t much better as they were the next to last seed. In all four of those seasons, they were bounced out of the first round of the playoffs (albeit with some controversy in 2015 and 2016).

Wanting Better for Sporting KC

Back to being “bad fans.” Every day, I find myself closer and closer to thinking things are never really going to change under Peter Vermes. And I’m not disillusioned enough to think the result going one way or another on Decision Day is going to change things.

Peter Vermes signed a five-year contract extension before the 2023 season, and it hasn’t even kicked in yet! To fire him, would mean (presumably) paying him for five seasons for literally nothing (a question for another day is if PV would have gotten that extension after this season). I think he’s done enough in his (more distant) past to have earned a chance to start as coach for one more season. No matter the results on Decision Day.

But I, and others, want more.

His record down since May really good, but he’s the reason the team was bad previously too. Everyone has rightly pointed to the injuries hampering 2022 and the start of 2023. It’s obvious that when Sporting KC got back Alan Pulido, Gadi Kinda and others, the team is better. But it’s not like those are the only injuries. Graham Zusi and Tim Melia have missed significant time in recent seasons. Johnny Russell has dealt with (and played through) many injuries. And the injury report constantly has names coming on and off of it (has Nemanja Radoja ever been fully fit this year?).

Why are so many players on this team always hurt? If I had that solution, I imagine Sporting KC would hire me yesterday. Obviously, there is a bit of bad luck (Pulido getting hurt on Mexican National Team duty).

However, there are other factors that can’t be ignored. Sporting KC are the second oldest team in all of MLS (father time is undefeated). While rotation has happened, it’s often forced rotation because of injuries. It’s not uncommon to see SKC throw out nearly identical lineups three times in a week (and with awful results). Outside of rotation, Vermes is often hesitant to use his subs (the way they almost collapsed playing up a man against Real Salt Lake could be a factor into why). But if he doesn’t trust those players, he should do better at signing guys. He is the Sporting Director and Coach after all.

We Can’t Ignore the Youth

Back to the age of the team. My colleague Mike Kuhn sent a Tweet earlier this season that has stuck with me.

Since that time, Graham Zusi turned 37, Dany Rosero turned 30, Erik Thommy turned 29 and Felipe Gutierrez turned 33.

On the other end of the spectrum, what youth has this team signed or developed in recent seasons? Let’s look at who is still on the roster, and the year they were signed (current age in parenthesis).

  • 2023 – Flores (21), Afrifa (22), Rindov (22)
  • 2022 – Ndenbe (23), Voloder (22), Tzionis (22), Agada (24)
  • 2021 – Pierre (20), Davis (21)
  • 2020 – Cisneros (19), Pulskamp (22)
  • 2019 – Duke (22), Hernandez (25)

Of those players, only Jake Davis is a regular starter and it’s possible Zusi would be taking that job if he was healthy. Add to that, Davis was the fourth choice and PV stumbled into that success. Logan Ndenbe has started a lot recently, but Tim Leibold’s health is no doubt playing a role. Willy Agada is definitely the backup striker. And John Pulskamp probably cemented himself as the second choice GK over this season. Everyone else either gets spot sub appearances (Tzionis), rides the bench or spent much of the season with SKC II.

Gianluca Busio is the only SKC youth success story and I’m not convinced Sporting KC developed him as much as found him.

I think wanting a change from the lack of youth development, overreliance on an aging core, wanting more subs and rotation doesn’t make you a bad fan. And if you think losing on Decision Day gets you one step closer, that’s your right. But if Sporting KC manage to sneak into the playoffs, it will just add to the argument of why Vermes is the guy that can do the job.

All of that said, I hope he is. I want this team to win. Every time I watch, I hold on to hope. I was given a lot of grief for saying they had plenty of time to turn it around (but they mostly have). I’m still not convinced they are good enough to make a deep playoff run, but I sure hope they do. I hope they win the whole damn thing.

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