I've got a favorite memory of Kansas City soccer. It's not something epic involving re-branding, the stadium or a massive playoff win. It's just one game. One game that's been rendered technically meaningless by history. But it's one that I'll always remember.
The Kansas City Star
It's even got a simple name: The Diop Game.
Three years ago (Aug. 21), on a weird summer night, Birahim Diop -- a defensive benchwarmer nearly that entire year -- led the offensively-inept Kansas City Wizards to a 4-1 win over the New England Revolution at CommunityAmerica Ballpark. The legend of this game has, in certain circles, overshadowed the actual events. (I probably don't help matters with stories like the one you're reading.)
It really needs its own ESPN Film's 30 for 30-like documentary. I can almost hear the teaser commercial in my head. (If anyone working in the film business is reading this, I'm more than happy to supply narration/script help/research for a documentary.)
"What if I told you that a soccer nomad known more for his smile than his abilities would get a rare chance to start and wind up having the game of his life."
Diop is an underdog's underdog. He started his career in his native Senegal before moving to the New York Metro Stars in 2002. He made just four appearances before spending the better part of a decade wandering the globe (often with former KC coach Octavio Zambrano) from Morocco to Moldova.
When Diop took the field that night, it had been eight years and 88 days since he had started a game in Major League Soccer. It was that unexpected.
He was a nice guy, always smiling (ALWAYS) at training. He was a guy who'd been all over the planet playing soccer for (pardon the cliche) the love of the game.
Before signing with Kansas City (after a suggestion from assistant coach Zambrano), Diop had been playing amateur soccer to get back into shape after an injury. He scored 19 goals and delivered 10 assists in 25 games with New York-based FDR United. "It was a tough thing, playing pro then going back to amateur. Trying to get back to the pros is not easy. You need a lot of work and motivation to do that again," he said after his famous performance three years ago.
For most of the season, Diop wasn't in Kansas City's main rotation. Most people assumed (based on history, size, ability) that he was central defensive (and maybe defensive midfielder) depth. No one expected he'd be a striker.
That's all pretty amazing. But the context of the game and the season KC was having takes it up a notch.
Back on August 21, 2010, Kansas City was a much different soccer city. The team was crawling along in the middle of the table and the Wizards (we didn't quite know it yet, but we were in the dying months of that moniker), were a desperate team.*
*This despite making national headlines for beating Manchester United 2-1 in front of 55,000 fans at Arrowhead Stadium.
It was the 20th match of the season and the Wizards had won just five times (5-9-5) -- including a seemingly traditional winless stretch from April 17th to June 10th. Offensively, it was quite dreary. In 19 games, the Wizards had just three multi-goal games -- a 4-0 win to start the season, a 2-2 draw with Chicago and a 2-0 win against Philly. That's it.*
*It's worth contextualizing in the notes how different things are today. Instead of talking about Supporter's Shield races and CONCACAF Champions League prospects, I spent the majority of 2010 coming up with complex scenarios for how KC could maybe, possibly, hopefully squeak into the playoffs. While they finished third in the Eastern Conference, they finished seven points behind San Jose for the last playoff spot.
So the 10,385 fans in attendance weren't really enthused when the lineups came out and Birahim Diop (a friend and fervent KC blogger tweeted "Diop? Seriously?"*) was leading the line. Teal Bunbury had been suspended one game the week before and Josh Wolff was nursing a calf strain. Peter Vermes was desperate -- after all, the rise and departure of Sunnil Chhetri and his legion of Facebook fans had already happened. Diop was usually a last-ditch answer on the bench -- a big dude who could help get a goal off a set piece. Not a starting forward.
*I'm not immune to criticism either. I tweeted out: Diop up top? 2nd worst scoring team in mls starting a dm at fwd. ouch."
The Starting XI for KC that day: GK: Jimmy Nielsen; DEF: Michael Harrington, Shavar Thomas, Jimmy Conrad, Roger Espinoza; MID: Stephane Auvray, Craig Rocastle, Davy Arnaud; FWD: Kei Kamara, Birahim Diop, Ryan Smith.
For the sake of history, the bench that day: Eric Kronberg, Korede Aiyegbusi, Jonathan Leathers, Jack Jewsbury, Chance Myers, Matt Besler and Graham Zusi.*
*That's right, four regular MLS starters today (two USMNT regulars) were merely on the bench that game. Roger Espinoza had short hair! My how far we've come.
If you weren't scratching your head at the decision at the time, you're a liar. Half the people had no idea who he was; the rest thought "isn't he a defender?"
Then, 30 minutes into the game, Kansas City was up 2-0 and Birahim Diop was the cause of everyone's general euphoria.
I've probably watched the highlights of this game three dozen times.
From out of nowhere, Diop went from the source of rage to the cause of elation. The Wizards had playoff life and fans had a reason to celebrate. The legend was born almost immediately.
"The Diop Game." One of the season's highlights and, certainly, the highlight of Diop's career.
He became a key player, obviously, after this game. He even managed to replicate the Revs performance (and then some) with a stunning hat-trick against San Jose later that season. We call that The Diop Game, Part 2. It was great, just not the same.
But for Diop (cue the documentary music swell), he just wasn't the same after that weird three-month run in 2010.
Those five goals in two games are the only goals he managed in his MLS career, which lasted just 1,486 minutes. He was waived in March 2012.
His whereabouts -- soccer-wise -- aren't known. (At least, Mike Kuhn at Down the Byline hasn't been able to find him yet.)
But some times, that's exactly what happens with "out-of-nowhere" success stories, isn't it? They rise to an occasion and then fade out. Left to our memories.
At least we'll always have The Diop Game. And it never gets old re-telling the story of that night.