Five daring investors saw the potential in the Kansas City Wizards. They looked past the technicolor past and the mundane present to imagine what it could become. They purchased the team in 2006 and struck a stadium deal the next year. Sporting Kansas City and its $200-million masterpiece of a ground emerged a couple of years later to manifest the progress in stunning fashion.
Those measures all occurred with this special afternoon in mind. This scene — a sold-out stadium packed with fervent fans despite miserable conditions — captured exactly what these ambitions men intended. Their reward came in the form of a gripping final against Real Salt Lake and a 7-6 victory on penalty kicks in the wake of a 1-1 draw after extra time.
“It’s a night I’ll always remember,” Sporting defender Matt Besler said. “I said that two or three times this year – it’s weird – with the All-Star Game and the World Cup qualifier. I said that’s been the best night in Kansas City. I really think this one tops it.”
The day Blue Hell froze will linger well beyond the moment when the fans packed inside Sporting Park eventually thaw. The coldest MLS Cup in history (official game time temperature: 20 degrees) served as the perfect scene for Sporting to ascend to its throne with the growth of the club on full display and the opposition supplying a fitting obstacle.
Real Salt Lake charted the course Sporting followed to its championship. They emerged from the doldrums of their expansion years under the sage guidance of general manager Garth Lagerwey and coach Jason Kreis and navigated their way to the summit in 2009. RSL relied on its carefully cultivated philosophy to maintain high standards despite its comparably modest resources and its need to amend its team to meet salary budget strictures. As far as adversaries go, this defiant, hardened outfit proved particularly fitting.
“I think it’s unbelievable that this group has put themselves in so many positions to win things,” Kreis said. “Unfortunately for one reason or another, they haven’t gone our way. It’s so easy to look at that in a negative way, but I don’t think we should.
RSL emerged from a ragged opening period to move into position to salve the wounds created by previous final defeats. The visitors improved before the break and pounced on Collin’s error to conjure a goal of considerable quality shortly after halftime. Kyle Beckerman supplied a no-look pass toward the edge of the penalty area. Alvaro Saborio corralled it neatly and then smashed it home to silence all but the vocal section of traveling, claret-clad fans tucked away in a corner.
Saborio’s opener after 52 minutes placed Sporting in a familiar, if increasingly uncomfortable, position. Sporting recovered from deficits against New England and Houston earlier in this postseason run to reinforce the increasingly stable temperament. The composure stemmed from the increasing belief cultivated by protracted regular-season success and a Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup victory here earlier this year and spurred onward by the recurring postseason nightmares experienced against the Dynamo.
“The past couple of years, we were a pretty young team,” Sporting midfielder Graham Zusi said. “I say that in the sense of playoff soccer in MLS. We didn’t really know how to grind out wins in the past. I think we’ve certainly learned from that.”
Sporting increased its trademark pressure to eventually produce the equalizer in the 76th minute. Collin atoned for his previous mistake and sustained his prolific postseason display. He battled through his mark and rose highest to restore the hope and set the stage for a finish few could have conceived.
Both teams continued their penchant for creating chances. RSL exploited the space behind the Sporting fullbacks as they pushed forward. Sporting pushed forward directly and tested the RSL defense through a variety of methods without displaying the sharpness required to impose punishment. All of toil went for naught through 30 minutes of extra time to send the match to spot kicks.
Ten long rounds captured the gamut of emotions and possibilities. RSL missed its first two attempts when Saborio blasted high and Jimmy Nielsen saved Ned Grabavoy’s effort. Sporting then watched key figures Besler (saved) and Zusi (over the bar with a chance to win it in the fifth and final round) spurn their opportunities to prolong the misery.
“There were times I was nervous we were going to lose,” Besler said. “There were times I was sure we were going to win and we didn’t. At the end, I’m very happy.”
On and on it went with two more conversions from each team, one set of misses in the eighth round (including Sebastian Velasquez with a chance to win it for RSL) and a perfect ninth round before the joy finally emerged. Collin hit a penalty into the right side netting. Lovel Palmer smashed his attempt off the underside of the bar to spark wild celebrations on this frozen home field.
The sight of Nielsen lifting the trophy high into the frigid night capped a renaissance started seven years ago. Sporting constructed its club from scratch and enticed Kansas City to follow. Their rewards continue to manifest with each passing day, but this championship vindicated for the energy, money and time invested reach this point.
“Being a Kansas City guy, I probably know more than anybody about what this organization used to be and what it has come to (now),” Sporting defender Seth Sinovic said. “It’s a testament to the ownership. It’s a testament to the fans. Hopefully, we can keep putting a winning product out there for both of them.”
It isn’t beyond them. If the past few years in Kansas City have proved anything, it is that Sporting has reached the point where anything is possible.