In a conference with tight top-tier competition, no team can take a game off. One win, one tie, one loss can change the course of the season drastically. Drop a game at home or fail to pick up a guaranteed win on the road, and suddenly a first-place finish could slip completely out of reach.
For LAFC this Sunday, the stakes are at their highest — a win over Sporting Kansas City would mean a spot at the top of the conference for good, an impressive feat for a first-year team. But that would mean taking down a team that has scored 63 goals this season, and doing it at Children’s Mercy Park, where Sporting KC has only dropped two games all season.
The challenge is set for LAFC, and the pressure is on to clinch one last win and seize the Western Conference. But head coach Bob Bradley is hoping to approach the weekend as if it’s any other game, and practices throughout this week have reflected that emphasis.
“I think we love the challenge every week,” head coach Bob Bradley said. “It’s not that it’s posed in a different way this week. It’s just looking at things that are important … There are no absolutes, there’s just first trying to get players to read situations … and trying to also ensure that the team as a whole is on the same page.”
The game also holds particular weight for midfielder Benny Feilhaber, who played for five years in Kansas City, winning the MLS Cup as a starter with the team in 2013. Sunday will be the first time that Feilhaber returns to his former stadium and faces his former teammates since he was traded to LAFC.
“It’s a special game for me,” Feilhaber said. “It’ll be exciting to play against my old teammates again, exciting to play at Children’s Mercy with the fans that treated me so well for five years so there’s a lot of things going on personally. It’s pretty exciting and there’s a lot on the line for everybody.”
One aspect of the team that continues to remain positive is a lack of injury concern heading into the postseason. Outside of Mark-Anthony Kaye and Quillan Roberts, who continue to work in rehab to build toward a return for next season, LAFC has managed to stay healthy throughout the season, and especially now while facing the playoffs. With a full cast of starters and deep talent off the bench, Bradley will be well-equipped to face the postseason.
For the team, the season finale couldn’t be more invigorating, with No. 1 facing off against No. 2 for a head-to-head battle for the top spot in the conference. Practice this week has reflected the intensity of this pressure, but each player echoed the same sentiment that this game was just like any other — just a chance to secure three points.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s the playoffs or the regular season,” Carlos Vela said. “I want to win.”