In order to fully appreciate tomorrow's match between Sporting Kansas City and the Seattle Sounders, you need to understand (or at least, re-live) the past.
The Kansas City Star
Tomorrow night will be the second time that Kansas City has served as host for the U.S. Open Cup Final. The last time? Eight years ago when Kansas City beat the Chicago Fire 1-0 at Arrowhead Stadium.
So, we're gonna get this DeLorean up to 88 miles per hour and go back to Sept. 22, 2004.
First, let's get in the 2004 mindset. Soccer in Kansas City was definitely a lower-tier sport (the average attendance at Arrowhead that year was just over 14,000). American superstar Clint Dempsey still played in MLS, for the New England Revolution. The U.S. men didn't qualify for the Athens Olympics, while the U.S. women won the gold in a dramatic win over Brazil.
An incumbent president was fighting off a challenge from a rich white-guy from New England. At the time of kickoff on Sept. 22, Oceanic Flight 815 hadn't crashed yet ("Lost" debuted later that same exact night on ABC). Marlo Stanfield was just beginning his ascension in the Baltimore drug game. Mel Gibson was just a bit wacky. LeBron James was becoming LEBRON JAMES. You could take your cup of coffee through a security checkpoint at KCI. Kanye West was rapping about Jesus. Jay-Z still had "99 Problems;" Beyonce wasn't one of them yet. And just about everyone everywhere was humming that Franz Ferdinand guitar hook. While yours truly was falling in love with Mastodon's "Leviathan" and still trying to figure out if I loved A Perfect Circle's "13th Step" or merely "liked it a pretty good deal."
I'm sure more happened, but hopefully that stroll down memory lane put you in the proper '04 head space.
Let's go back...
'I'm just happy it went in.'
The only difference between the Wizards and the Fire on that September night was a free-kick by Russian journeyman Igor Simutenkov. It came in the 5th minute of extra time. It was a game winner. It hit the under-side of the crossbar, bounced straight down and went in off the back of the Fire's goalkeeper Henry Ring.
This is what it looked like. (This is the only video I can find on the Internet of the goal. But, since it's an awesome promo video, I don't think anyone is going to mind.)
"I'm just happy it went in. For me, it's been a difficult year since surgery," Simutenkov said after the game. "I'm just really happy now. For me, this is the most important goal of my life. Alex (Zotinca) ducked down and I was able to get the ball through the wall. I'm very happy and happy for this group of guys, the coaches and the fans."
Simutenkov left the Wizards at the end of the year. He played sparingly in his last year after suffering a torn achilles tendon in the preseason. In three seasons with KC, he played 49 games and put in 12 goals.
None likely as important as that one.
A very, very strong lineup.
How strong were the Wizards in '04? Let's say I opened up a Hall of Fame at the end of this season exclusively for Kansas City coaches/players. The starting XI for that Open Cup Final had three first-ballot guys* (coach Bob Gansler, goalkeeper Tony Meola and defender Jimmy Conrad), two guys who easily make the second induction class (midfielder Kerry Zavagnin and forward Josh Wolff), three guys who could take a few years but would get in (midfielder/forward Davy Arnaud, defender Nick Garcia and midfielder Diego Gutierrez).
*Just because I know you're wondering: My first-class in this theoretical HOF would be Lamar Hunt, Gansler, Meola, Preki and Conrad. I'm open to suggestions. I'd even consider inducting Meola's mullet as a special consideration. Perhaps we'll hash this out sometime in the off-season.
That's seven of the 11. The rest of the starters weren't pushovers: Jose Burciaga Jr. and Romanian Alex Zotinca joined Garcia/Conrad in the back, the midfield was rounded out by Francisco Gomez and current Portland Timbers captain Jack Jewsbury.
Simutenkov and Taylor Graham came off the bench in that game. Shavar Thomas was also a member of the team.
Another potential sure-fire HOFer, Chris Klein, missed most of the '04 season after tearing his ACL.
Gansler built his team on smart, defensive players. In that group, at least six players (Meola, Garcia, Conrad, Jewsbury, Arnaud and Wolff) would wear a captain's armband (Conrad, Arnaud and Wolff would wear it for KC).
Team leaders then and now
Arnaud led the '04 team in games played (30)* and minutes logged (2,626).
*Not a shocker, Arnaud is the franchise's all-time leader in games played with 240.
Josh Wolff led a balanced attack with 10 goals with Arnaud just behind him at 9. This year, Kei Kamara already has 9 goals (with 11 matches remaining).
Arnaud and Klein finished the season with 8 assists each; Graham Zusi already has 9 assists this season.
How did the Wizards fare after winning the Cup?
The Wizards only lost two games after putting out the Fire -- 2-0 to the San Jose Earthquakes in the first leg of the first round of the playoffs (KC would advance on the back of a 3-0 home win in the second leg) and 3-2 to D.C. United in the controversial MLS Cup. (Read more about that here if you're unaware or feel like re-living that night.)
In a strange scheduling quirk that can only happen in a league with 10 teams, the Wizards played six of its final eight games against either the Earthquakes of the Los Angeles Galaxy, including facing both in the playoffs.
The more things change, the more they stay the same
There are plenty of interesting parallels between the two teams.
In '04, KC averaged just 1.27 goals per game. Contrast that with the current Sporting Kansas City squad that is averaging just 1.22 goals per game.
That's not all of the symmetry. In '04, Kansas City's stout defense led the league allowing only 30 goals on the season. This year, Kansas City are tied for the league lead allowing just 21 goals.
Both teams also suffered through a summer dry spell, the '04 team went 2-5-1 in the 8 games leading up to late September Cup final while the '12 team is 3-3-2 in its last 8 games.
The paths to the final were a bit reminiscent too. Both teams posted shutouts in the quarter- and semi-final rounds after allowing a lower-league team on the scoresheet in their first match. Because of changes to the U.S. Open Cup structure, the '12 team entered the tournament in the third round while the '04 team entered in the 4th.
Kansas City Wizards' path to the Final
• Fourth Round: at Atlanta Silverbacks, 4-1 W
• Quarterfinals: vs. Dallas Burn, 4-1 W
• Semifinals: vs. San Jose Earthquakes, 1-0 W
Sporting Kansas City's path to the Finals
• Third Round: vs. Orlando City, 3-2 W
• Fourth Round: vs. Colorado Rapids, 2-0 W
• Quarterfinals: vs. Dayton Dutch Lions, 3-0 W
• Semifinals: at Philadelphia Union, 2-0 W
Some things have changed... dramatically
The one massive, glaring issue that we cannot avoid talking about: The enhanced visibility of this team in 2012 vs. 2004.
Despite being one of the best teams in MLS and still fresh off a championship run in 2000, the '04 Open Cup was attended by a paltry 8,819 fans. That would've been a great crowd at CommunityAmerica Ballpark. But at Arrowhead, it probably looked like 200 people spread throughout the lower bowl.
Compare that to the last match Open Cup match played at Livestrong Sporting Park, when 15,167 turned out to watch KC beat Dayton. That was only a quarterfinal match against a team in the third division of American soccer.
The new ownership, the re-brand, the dedication to building an exciting stadium and team. Even though a lot has changed in the last eight years, perhaps nothing has changed as much as Sporting Kansas City's stature in Kansas City.
Of course, coming full-circle to win the Lamar Hunt trophy would give the franchise an even bigger boost.