Real Salt Lake-Sporting Kansas City Preview
One of the participants in the MLS championship game went through a long-term rebuilding project under new ownership, complete with a rebranding of the organization, construction of a $200 million stadium and the revitalization of soccer in the surrounding community.
The other participant went through a rebuilding project that took about a month.
Sporting Kansas City, which languished as the Wizards for years, will be playing for its second MLS Cup at glitzy Sporting Park on Saturday when it faces Real Salt Lake, a club that jettisoned a bunch of proven veterans in the offseason in a push to go younger.
It's the first time that Kansas City, once a soccer wasteland and now a hotbed for the sport, has hosted the league's title game. When the Wizards won their only championship in 2000, the finale was played at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C.
''We've made such a turnaround in all aspects of the club,'' said Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes, who played on that 2000 team. ''So much of it has to do with the ownership group and the vision and commitment, and not just their commitment from the financial aspect but also from their participation within the community. That's been a major impact on our team.''
Tickets for the MLS Cup were snapped up in a matter of minutes, which is hardly surprising. The club sold out every game this season, turning Sporting Park into a must-visit destination.
It helps that the club has only experienced success since 2006, when it was purchased by a six-man ownership group headed by Cerner Corp. co-founders Neal Patterson and Cliff Illig.
After a few moribund seasons playing in cavernous Arrowhead Stadium, and then a minor league baseball park, the club finally caught fire with its 2011 rebranding. New logo, new colors, brand new name, one that fit the mold of European soccer clubs. Sporting KC finished first in the Eastern Conference in 2011 and 2012, and last year won the U.S. Open Cup for the second time.
The one thing it hasn't done is win the MLS Cup.
Frustrated the past couple years by Houston, Sporting KC finally broke through against its nemesis this season. A dramatic victory in the second leg of the semifinal at raucous Sporting Park sent the club on to Saturday's championship game.
''This is huge for the city,'' said forward Dom Dwyer, who scored the deciding goal against the Dynamo. ''I've only been here two years, but I've seen this grow. There's more and more hype, and there's more and more attention. You start to get noticed when you're out and around the city, and a lot of people are talking about it.
''It's not just Chiefs or Royals,'' Dwyer said of the two other professional sports franchises that call Kansas City home. ''It's Sporting, too, so that's really cool.''
Real Salt Lake has been a big deal in Utah for a while.
The club, which played its inaugural season in 2005, has qualified for the playoffs six straight years, the best active streak in the league. Four of those seasons, Real Salt Lake advanced to the conference finals, and in 2009 it beat the Los Angeles Galaxy to win the MLS Cup.
But a tight salary cap means clubs tend to walk a financial tightrope. Last December, Real Salt Lake parted with eight regulars - among them, Will Johnson was sent to Portland, and Jamison Olave and Fabian Espindola to New York - and replaced them with less expensive alternatives.
Even with the roster rebuild, the club kept winning.
''Obviously not something we hope to do every day, trading away three All-Stars at the end of the season,'' Real Salt Lake general manager Garth Lagerwey said. ''It's a credit to the veteran guys who remain. When they see Will Johnson leave, they could throw up their hands and say, `Hey, what are these crazy guys doing?' And they didn't. They stuck with us.''
Real Salt Lake made the finals of this year's U.S. Open Cup, losing a nail-biter to D.C. United. It then finished second in the Western Conference to Portland, only to beat the Timbers 5-2 in their two-leg, aggregate-goal conference final.
''We've kind of had to shuffle things around a lot this year,'' Real Salt Lake midfielder Ned Grabavoy said, ''and maybe it was for the best to have that happen at the beginning of the year.''
The two clubs have only met once this season with Sporting KC winning 2-1 at Real Salt Lake in July. But much has changed since then, not the least of which is the weather. The forecast for Saturday includes a high temperature in the low-20s.
''It's two quality teams, a good matchup, and this is what we've been working for since January, since before January,'' Dwyer said. ''Looking forward to finishing it off the right way.''