Don't look now, but Sporting Kansas City is back in the MLS playoff race. As of Wednesday morning, they sit at 20 points and would win a theoretical tiebreaker for the 10th and final playoff spot. More than that, they are just three points behind the Colorado Rapids for the No. 8 spot with two games in hand and a better goal-difference.
That we're sitting here at the midpoint in the season talking about Sporting not just as a possible playoff team, but a likely one, is nothing short of remarkable. Let's recall that this was a team that started the season on a 10-game road trip that did not start particularly well. Through eight games, Sporting sat at 1-6-1 and were facing the very real possibility of their season being over before they even had a chance to break in Livestrong Sporting Park.
The season started to take a turn in a somewhat unexpected place. Sporting were playing game No. 9 of their epic road trip at altitude against the Colorado Rapids, the defending MLS Cup champions and one of the best home teams in the league. In the 75th minute, they trailed 1-0 and looked to be heading toward another frustrating defeat.
That's when the season at least started to turn. Ryan Smith collected a ball just outside the penalty area and let rip from about 20 yards out. His shot beat Matt Pickens inside the far, brought the score level and eventually allowed SKC to end what had become a five-matching losing streak.
Since that goal, Sporting has trailed for a grand total of 18 minutes and they've built a seven-match unbeaten run, currently the longest in MLS. More recently, they've won 4 of 5 and posted a +7 goal difference.
If Sporting can maintain their current road/home pace -- which includes a very-difficult-to-maintain 2.3 PPG at home -- they'd finish with about 57 points. That might be enough to compete for the Supporters' Shield and would almost certainly be enough to win the Eastern Conference.
Sporting has engineered this turnaround by playing a style that didn't really seem to be in their DNA early in the season. Since losing 4-1 to the Los Angeles Galaxy to fall on May 14, Sporting has not yielded more than a goal in any game and has allowed just five goals and posted four shutouts in eight games.
What's even more surprising is how small apart Sporting's big offensive guns have played in the turnaround. During their horrible start, Sporting scored 10 goals in their first five games with Teal Bunbury, Kei Kamara and Omar Bravo combining for eight of those. Since then, those three players have just one goal and two assists between them (all by Bravo) and Bunbury and Kamara have each started just once in the past five games.
The goals have come, though. Rookie forward CJ Sapong, midfielder Graham Zusi and center back Aurilien Collin have combined for six goals and five assists in the past six matches, as Sporting has shown an impressive penchant for finding goals in unexpected places.
Head coach and main talent evaluator Peter Vermes deserves some credit, too. After starting the season in a very aggressive 4-1-2-3 formation that was largely a carry over from last year, he has gone with a variety of more defensive formations that have mostly played like a 4-2-3-1.
The best part? Sporting has still has 14 games to play at the soccer palace that is Livestrong Sporting Park. A lot of us loudly questioned the intelligence of opening with so many games on the road -- and owner Robb Heineman added his voice to the chorus -- but at this point, it appears to have worked. Should make for an interesting second half of the season.