Sporting drama: Three Thoughts on the MLS Cup final, and Sporting KC’s second title
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — In what was perhaps the most dramatic MLS final in the league’s 18-year history, Sporting Kansas City won its second title on Saturday evening following a rugged, gritty 1-1 draw with Real Salt Lake and a gut-wrenching penalty kick shootout that went 10 rounds.
Four years ago, SKC was irrelevant, consigned to representing an indifferent region and playing at a minor league baseball stadium. Now it’s a powerhouse. Its glittering arena, Sporting Park, has hosted an MLS Cup final, an All-Star Game, a U.S. Open Cup final and World Cup qualifiers and sits firmly at the epicenter of American soccer. And the team that plays there, forged by coach Peter Vermes, plays with a style and purpose that is both immediately recognizable and undeniably successful.
As MLS commissioner Don Garber presented the trophy, he said. “Your fans, your stadium, and everything you’ve built, have created a bright shining light for the sport and our league, and we’re so proud of everything you’ve achieved.”
Here are three more thoughts on the third MLS final to be decided from the penalty spot, and the first in 13 years to end with a K.C. celebration:
That shootout was unbelievable: A penalty kick tiebreaker should be a formality when one team takes a 2-0 lead. But SKC wasted that advantage. The hosts missed the opportunity to clinch the title when dead-ball specialist Graham Zusi, of all people, missed in the fifth round, then survived when RSL’s Sebastián Velásquez had the same chance in the eighth.
Finally, when the shootout had reached the 10th frame and had become the longest tiebreaker in MLS history, game MVP Aurelien Collin scraped the right post with his successful effort. RSL’s Lovel Palmer, a reserve defender, then struck the crossbar. SKC won the tiebreaker, 7-6.
The shootout was taken into the mouth of the Cauldron, the area behind Sporting Park’s north goal, where SKC’s most vocal supporters stand and sing. Sporting clinched last year’s U.S. Open Cup title at the same end and in the same manner – a tiebreaker won when the visitors buckled under the noise and pressure. The partnership is fitting. The region has embraced its stylish but hard-nosed team, while Sporting’s players, ownership and coach have built something to be proud of. On two occasions now, they’ve combined to help their team win a trophy.
It wasn’t pretty, but it was riveting – The stakes were high. The kick-off temperature was 20 degrees (the coldest recorded for an MLS match). And each team had played only once over the past four weeks thanks to frustrating scheduling irregularities. Not surprisingly, those ingredients combined to turn the opening stages of Saturday’s final into an ugly soccer stew. Players lost their footing, body checks seemed to outnumber completed passes and tempers flared. SKC’s Uri Rosell, a critical player who anchors the midfield, left in just the eighth minute with an ankle injury.
But when SKC and RSL finally warmed up and found a bit of rhythm, they crafted a final that was full of incident edge-of-your-seat excitement. It wasn’t an advertisement for the more aesthetic aspects of the sport, which both teams can display, but it certainly was dramatic.
Both teams created their share of golden scoring chances and made their share of mistakes, and the 1-1 draw was a fitting result
Álvaro Saborío, whose starting role was confirmed when Devon Sandoval reinjured his foot during training last week, put RSL into the lead with a stunning strike in the 52nd. U.S. national team midfielder Kyle Beckerman (who had his own case for the game MVP award), set up the play with a perfect chipped pass.
Collin’s turnover led to the RSL goal. But he made amends in 76th. RSL was 15 minutes from the title when Collin out-jumped defender Chris Schuler and midfielder Luis Gil to head home Zusi’s corner kick. It was his third playoff goal –- the rugged center back led SKC in playoff scoring with three in five games.
RSL hit the post twice, Nick Rimando stopped Zusi from point-blank range and Saborío’s overtime goal-bound header was whistled out for offside. By the time SKC raised the cup, the turgid opening half hour felt like ancient history.
The weight of history – While Sporting (19-11-9) celebrates the confirmation of its powerhouse status, RSL (19-11-9) was left to lament another missed opportunity.
Since claiming what seemed an unlikely MLS title in 2009, coach Jason Kreis’ team has been one of the league’s most consistent winners. But silverware has proven elusive. One early playoff exit piled upon the next, and the excruciating loss in the 2011 CONCACAF Champions League finals left a lingering bitter taste.
This season, which was supposed to be a bit of a rebuilding year, started with lower expectations. But it still ended in such disappointment, as RSL became the first club to lose both the Open Cup (in a shocker at home to anemic D.C. United) and MLS Cup final in the same season.
With the future up in the air – Kreis may leave to coach expansion team New York City FC and instrumental GM Garth Lagerwey has only one year left on his contract – it’s unknown whether the league’s small-market juggernaut will continue knocking on the door.
Whether this RSL team eventually will be regarded as a smart and stylish winner that punched above its weight and exemplified American soccer’s potential, or whether it’ll be seen as a squad that folded when the stakes were highest, is unknown thanks to Saturday’s result. Once again, Salt Lake had glory in its grasp and let it slip agonizingly through its fingers.