Sam Mellinger

Sporting Kansas City can’t stop now

Updated: 2013-11-07T13:42:35Z

By Sam Mellinger

The Kansas City Star

So Sporting Kansas City has its second playoff series win in six years, this one fought for in the cold and from behind. They start late, then go into overtime, leaving babysitters back home on time-and-a-half and those who stay screaming for every bounce and every kick until, finally, a player who didn’t even suit up for the last game scores the biggest goal of the season.

Blue confetti is covering the field. A cup of beer comes flying out of the stands. A security guard applauds. The maniacs in the Cauldron are chanting and screaming and hugging and waving flags. Sporting has beaten New England in the MLS Eastern Conference semifinals on Wednesday and this is Kansas City, so we should never take playoff success for granted. But there is a fact hanging over this entire sweet ordeal:

This can’t be it.

This can’t be the peak of Sporting’s season, or the climax of a monster rebranding now in its third year and still without a trip to the MLS Cup final.

“From the beginning of the game all the way to the end, we were fantastic,” coach Peter Vermes says. “There’s not much (more) I can say about the determination of the players. Their effort all the way through the game … I can’t say enough about their perseverance.”

Sporting deserves every bit of this euphoria and the attention it will get. They have played at a high level for years now, enough to build a fan base and familiarity and expectations.

They won’t get long to enjoy it, though. The conference finals begin on Saturday in Houston (with an awkward, two-week break before the second leg). The turnaround is quick. From the sports version of life-or-death, to a series that will probably determine whether this season is remembered as a success or failure — all in the span of three days.

It’s one more challenge for a team that so far has answered the most important ones. This is the best defense in the league, playing for a city that’s always been obsessed with defense. Graham Zusi is one of MLS’ best players. Matt Besler is among its best defenders — and from here, too. Seth Sinovic, another local, scored the tying goal at the end of regulation.

This is a team that people who haven’t accepted soccer or Sporting can get behind, in other words, but — thrilling as it was — can’t be the pinnacle.

Sporting has home field throughout the playoffs now, meaning the MLS championship goes through this gorgeous stadium and the rowdy folks who’ve made it one of the league’s toughest places to win.

This is a championship-caliber team, no question, and the biggest takeaway from winning this conference semifinal is a stubborn resiliency that saw them come back once last weekend in New England with a late goal and then two more times here at Sporting Park.

Sporting dominated this game, nearly every one of the 120 minutes. It outshot New England by a ridiculous 32-5 margin, and 10-2 on shots on goal. It won the 50-50 balls, passed better, controlled the ball more … it was a clinic, really, against one of the league’s better teams.

Sporting is talented and tough, a wicked combination, and there’s enough here to expect this season to be the peak of Sporting’s innovative, ambitious and fearless push into the mainstream local sports scene.

They’re catching breaks, too. Houston pulled off a big upset in the other conference semifinal, meaning Sporting gets what must be a dream matchup. Sporting didn’t lose to the Dynamo this year, and should have all the motivation needed — Houston knocked Sporting out of the playoffs each of the last two seasons. Sporting CEO Robb Heineman took what the Dynamo must consider a gratuitous shot on Twitter last week.

Beat Houston and Sporting will have home field in the MLS Cup final for what would be the city’s first championship since the then-Wizards won the league title in 2000.

It’s all there, you see, and if Sporting doesn’t take advantage, they’re going to earn themselves a reputation they won’t like. The last two years of playoff disappointment makes that a reality.

The good part is that a talented team that plays relentlessly fierce makes it realistic.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send email to smellinger@kcstar.com or follow him at Twitter.com/mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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