Sporting KC rides first 7-0 start in MLS since '96
Peter Vermes never thought another Major League Soccer team would put together the kind of start that the Los Angeles Galaxy accomplished during the league's inaugural season.
There were only 10 teams back in 1996, and hardly the same level of parity. Travel schedules were less taxing, the talent pool much shallower and the spotlight hardly shined as brightly.
The Galaxy won their first eight games in regulation, and their first 12 overall, setting a standard for excellence that for 15 years went unmatched. When Sporting Kansas City takes the pitch against Portland on Saturday night, it will do so with a chance to make history.
The club has won its first seven games in regulation, one shy of the Galaxy's record.
''I don't know if you ever think it's going to happen,'' said Vermes, who played for the New York/New Jersey MetroStars during that inaugural season and is now Sporting KC's manager.
Sporting KC will have to win for the third time in eight days to achieve the milestone. It knocked off Real Salt Lake before heading on the road, and then beat Vancouver Whitecaps FC on Wednesday night for its fifth straight win over the Western Conference.
The success is hardly surprising given the way Sporting KC finished last year.
Playing in a glittering new stadium, the franchise came on after a miserable start to win the Eastern Conference and advance to the MLS Cup semifinals. The young squad lost 2-0 to the Houston Dynamo, but it gained valuable experience and generated plenty of momentum that has carried into this season.
Kei Kamara leads the league with 36 shots, including 16 on goal. Jimmy Nielsen has the most wins (all seven) and shutouts (five) of any goalkeeper. The team has allowed only two goals this year, and has gone long stretches without even allowing a shot on goal.
''They really worked in the offseason and they put themselves in a great position, a great situation,'' Vermes said. ''That's a credit to them, the team, the organization, and wanting to be successful. Momentum only sustains itself if those guys are committed to the long-term.''
Sporting KC's start has been something of a relief in a city starved for success.
The NFL's Chiefs went 7-9 last season, their head coach getting fired along the way, and haven't won a playoff game since 1993. And Major League Baseball's Royals were riding a seven-game losing streak into Friday night's game against Toronto, and haven't even made the playoffs since 1985.
Meanwhile, thousands have been filtering into Livestrong Sporting Park, which has become a hip, new destination for sports fans. A sell-out crowd of 20,323 showed up to watch a game against the Galaxy a couple of weeks ago, nearly out-drawing a Royals game across town the same night.
Even the stadium itself has been racking up awards.
The $200 million-plus facility near Kansas Speedway is a finalist for ''Sports Facility of the Year'' by the SportsBusiness Journal and ''Venue of the Year'' by TheStadiumBusiness Awards. Fans have taken to Twitter to set up pep rallies and gatherings, and many have taken to the road, a merry band of followers having quite the ball.
''We had what, about 100 people at this game in Vancouver? Probably close to 200,'' midfielder Graham Zusi said. ''That in itself gave us a little extra boost. Talking with some of those guys, they're expecting quite a bit more in Portland.''
Team president Robb Heineman often serves as the ringleader.
Regarded as one of the most forward-thinking executives in sports business, it's Heineman who may be most responsible for the stadium, the team's recent rebranding and the on-field success. In fact, when the team was blasted on a local sports radio station during its poor start last season, Heineman called up not to defend the team, but to agree with the radio hosts.
He vowed at the time that Sporting KC would turn things around.
Well, the turnaround certainly happened.
''I don't have any doubt that they're the best team in MLS right now,'' Vancouver coach Martin Rennie said. ''I think that would be very hard to argue.''
Vermes knows that attention will keep building until Sporting Kansas City loses, and there will be more questions and more distractions. He realizes that the MLS season is a marathon rather than a sprint, but he also knows a win now counts the same as a win later.
''At the end of the day, I think our players have approached this fantastically,'' he said. ''I think they've stayed extremely humbled, extremely focused, not getting ahead of themselves, and they've gone out and performed an executed. When you do that, you give yourself a chance.''