Now that Sporting Kansas City's run in the Open Cup is now over, it is back to reality. A grim reality where Sporting is last in the West as the trophy drought will, in all likelihood, hit five years.
It was a crushing blow as SKC bowed out in the Open Cup semifinals, losing 5-4 on penalties to USL Championship side Sacramento Republic after 120 minutes with neither side punching the back of the net. Since 2009, Sporting is now 0-2 in shootouts with their second-choice goalkeeper and 7-0 with their first-choice goalkeeper.
What is there to play for? If you ask manager Peter Vermes, it is a playoff spot. If you ask most others, that is not even a thought. It would take a miracle to turn this team around to win almost all of their remaining 11 games to make the playoffs.
Technically, the playoffs are still a possibility. But it is most definitely a long shot as they sit at the bottom of the Western Conference, 10 points from a playoff spot.
Sporting Kansas City fell to Sacramento Republic FC in the US Open Cup semi finals
""It's going to take a huge effort to get us into the playoffs from where we are right now, but there's no other option. We have to go out, believe that we can do it and that's it.""- Johnny Russell, Sporting KC captain
Where does Sporting go from here?
There really isn't much to play for other than pride and future contracts and opportunities. Given that, this is the time to try some things out.
It starts with the personnel on the pitch. There should be some changes with more youth getting time. Not for development, but because the veteran crew hasn't shown any better than the youth this year.
There has been some very strange decisions on behalf of Vermes, none more so than starting Khiry Shelton game in and game out despite his lack of production.
With the addition and acclimation of Willy Agada, Shelton's time should be drastically cut.
Additionally, Kayden Pierre, Logan Ndenbe and Robert Voloder should get more regular minutes in lieu of Graham Zusi, Ben Sweat and Andreu Fontas. Pierre and Ndenbe have been getting some good minutes, but they should be joined by Voloder as long as they are healthy for the remainder of the season.
In the midfield, Felipe Hernandez has been a promising spark. The SKC homegrown player has probably been the team's best player in the middle of the park this season. If he can join Erik Thommy in the same lineup and stay balanced, that could become a much more dynamic midfield for SKC.
Amidst all the negativity, both Hernandez and Pierre have brought some positive signs. John Pulskamp has had some big moments, including a tremendous save to keep the score level in the semifinal second half of normal time. Pulskamp couldn't get anywhere near any of the five penalties against him, which was a let down considering what we've witnessed with Tim Melia since 2015.
The Academy trio of Hernandez, Pierre and Pulskamp need to keep getting minutes the rest of the way.
Cam Duke is a different story. He hasn't brought any consistency. Perhaps giving him a consistent run of games in the midfield could help him find who he is as a player.
Even with such a grim reality in 2022, there still is hope for 2023. SKC will have Alan Pulido and Gadi Kinda back next year, offering two dynamic attacking options that have been sorely missed this season.
Hernandez and Thommy could have a good impact in the midfield as well. That leaves just sorting out the defense and midfield, which must be the priorities heading into 2023, especially at the No. 6.