[MLS SPOTLIGHT] If the players, coaches and fans of Sporting Kansas City thought nothing could be worse than starting the season with an unprecedented 10 straight road games, they should have known better. A 1-0 loss to Seattle in stoppage time Saturday night at Qwest Field repeated the scenario of last year, when youngster Michael Fucito ran onto a Pat Ianni throw-in to nail a shot past keeper Jimmy Nielsen. In the 2011 version, defender Jeff Parke scored his first goal in nearly seven years with a header from a Tyson Wahl – formerly of Kansas City -- corner kick in the 93rd minute.
SKC got an attacking boost from the presence of Mexican Designated Player Omar Bravo, who had missed the last five games with a sports hernia injury, and forced several good saves from Seattle keeper Kasey Keller. Bravo had a chance to score in the fifth minute on the rebound of a saved Ryan Smith shot, but he put his attempt right at Keller.
Smith made his first start of the season in a three-forward alignment that featured Kei Kamara on the opposite, right flank and Teal Bunbury in the center. Bravo joined Davy Arnaud and Craig Rocastle in midfield. Keeper Jimmy Nielsen and his teammates were within seconds of their first shutout of the season when Kamara chased down a deflection near the goal line and put it over the sideline for a throw-in, but officials ruled the ball had crossed the line and signaled for a corner kick.
Wahl swerved an inswinger that Parke, unmarked, angled past Nielsen inside the far post for only the Sounders’ second shot on goal of the game, but it was enough.
With two more away games to play before the opening of Livestrong Sporting Park on June 9, SKC (1-6-1) is last in the Eastern Conference and nine points out of a playoff spot. It has equaled the eight-game road trip endured by the Galaxy in 2003 prior to the opening of Home Depot Center; Los Angeles (0-4-4) failed to win during that span, yet did sneak into the playoffs as the No. 8 team despite finishing ninth on overall points.
In that season, the top four teams in each of the five-team divisions qualified regardless of points, and the Galaxy got in despite amassing two fewer points than Eastern Conference cellar-dwellar Columbus. With expansion to 18 teams in 2011, the top three teams in each conference will qualify, and four more spots go to teams based on overall points.
Next week, with its ninth straight road game, SKC will match Chicago’s start to the 2006 season as construction of Toyota Park was being completed. The Fire was 2-4-3 when it moved into its new home, and like the 2003 Galaxy, qualified for the playoffs.
SKC faces tougher odds than either of those teams. In 2003, eight of 10 (80 percent) of teams reached the postseason; in 2006, eight of 12 (66.7 percent) got a spot. Even with an expanded field of 10 qualifiers from 18 teams, the percentages (56 percent) are lower, and the four wild-card teams will also have to play an extra game, yet that may be the best SKC can hope for this season unless it can make its new home a fortress right from the get-go. (It can be done, as per Jeld-Wen Field in Portland, where the expansion Timbers are 5-0.)
Last year, the Kansas City Wizards came to Qwest Field and were stunned by a Harvard kid who’d only a few weeks before signed a first-team contract. On Saturday the names were different but not so the outcome.