Words of encouragement: Sporting Kansas City coach Peter Vermes has turned 'The Wiz' into contenders for the MLS crown this season. (Photo by: Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Peter Vermes stood in the visiting locker room at Red Bull Arena, shaking his head, trying to come to grips with his team's latest loss. The Sporting Kansas City head coach faced questions about the quality of his team, which had just lost its third straight match and was in the midst of what would eventually become a nine-match winless streak. When asked if he still believed his team could be a winner, his answer was clear.

"I believe in this team," Vermes said. "Do I think we can win? I really, really do."

More than four months later, it's much easier to see why Vermes had so much faith in his team. Bolstered by a laundry list of players who are enjoying career years, including several young players, Sporting KC climbed from last place in the Eastern Conference to a tie for first place in just three months (Columbus has since retaken a one-point lead atop the East). That surge up the standings has Sporting Kansas City looking like a favorite to win the East and potentially play in the MLS Cup Final.

"The players deserve a lot of credit for buying into what we're trying to do and believing we could turn things around," said Vermes. "We've had so many players step up and get better and that has just increased the competition for playing time and right now you see a strong team."

Sporting KC looked like anything but a strong team to start the season, when a brutal ten-game road stretch to start the season (the schedule being a product of the team having a new stadium open in mid-season) threatened to ruin the season before the team ever got going. Sporting managed just one win in those first ten matches, and then settled for a disappointing draw in the grand opening of Livestrong Sporting Park.

Ironically, it was a road game that helped turn things around. Vermes shook up his starting lineup, sitting starters Teal Bunbury and Kei Kamara, when Sporting KC visited FC Dallas on June 12th. FC Dallas came in riding a nine-match unbeaten streak and looked destined to steamroll KC.

Sporting KC responded with a resounding 4-1 victory that sent a message to the league that KC wasn't quite dead yet, while also sending a message to Vermes' squad.

"It was a turning point because it showed our team that, when we play like we're capable of playing, we can beat anybody," Vermes said. "It gave our team some confidence and they've built on that."

Sporting KC has posted an 8-2-6 record since that win in Texas, a record amassed on the strength of an ever-improving squad. From right back Chance Myers, the former No. 1 overall MLS Draft pick who is enjoying sustained success for the first time in his young career, to Graham Zusi, who has also flourished after mainly serving as a reserve his first two years in the league, to rookie of the year candidate C.J. Sapong, to centerback Matt Besler enjoying an all-star season, to underrated left back Seth Sinovic, who KC picked up off waivers during the season. Sporting KC's rise has been a collective effort more than result of being carried by one of two players.

That's what makes Sporting KC the most legitimate candidate in the East to win a championship. The squad boasts depth like no other team in their conference, and has the attacking weapons to challenge even the toughest teams in the West.

It hasn't all been perfect for KC in recent months. The side has squandered some late leads, most memorably a 2-0 second-half lead to FC Dallas at home that shook the squad, but didn't stop the team from posting four points in their next two matches.

"Right now it's about consistency and playing at that level we know we can play at," Vermes said. "We've had some injuries to deal with, but with getting players back like Davy Arnaud, it should help us find that consistency you want to have at the end of the year."

We will get to see just how legitimate Sporting KC is as a title contender this weekend, when they take on Real Salt Lake at Rio Tinto Stadium. It isn't the first tough match the team has played during its impressive turnaround, but it should provide a good barometer of just how strong Sporting KC is heading into the final weeks of the MLS season.

Whether KC wins or loses this weekend, Sporting will still be a good bet to make some noise come playoff time. And one thing is clear. Nobody is asking Vermes if he believes in his team anymore.

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