This has been a very hectic year for soccer fans in Kansas City.
By CHARLES GOOCH
The Kansas City Star
It was the longest season in Major League Soccer history, with 34 MLS matches, two Open Cup games, four CONCACAF Champions League matches, three playoff games, an All-Star Game and a U.S. men’s World Cup qualifier packed into a 40-week schedule.
The eventual champs began the MLS season with a 3-1 win on March 2 in Philadelphia and closed it out with a penalty-kick victory over Real Salt Lake on Dec. 7.
Along the way, Sporting KC didn’t have the most convincing regular season in franchise history. The team had more home losses (five) this year than in 2011 and 2012 combined, lost to affiliate club Orlando City in the U.S. Open Cup, failed to win either of its home CONCACAF games, and struggled to consistently replace fan favorites Roger Espinoza and Kei Kamara (twice) after they left for Europe.
But it did have the best ending — confetti, fireworks and champagne. For 99.9 percent of soccer fans in this championship-starved city, that should be enough to drown out the haters. With that mindset, here are the rest of the “Bests” for Sporting Kansas City’s championship season.
1. Best Game: Sporting KC 2, Houston 1
With apologies to the tense and frigid championship game, the second leg of the Eastern Conference Finals had an element the MLS Cup final couldn’t quite replicate: revenge. (And, well, a regulation victory.) Just five minutes in, it looked like KC would suffer yet another chapter in the book of Dynamo domination as Houston’s Oscar Boniek Garcia put clown shoes on the vaunted KC defense with a beautiful goal. Instead of succumbing to the disappointment, however, Kansas City picked itself up off the mat and vanquished the Dynamo in superb fashion.
Runners-up: Sporting KC 2, Real Salt Lake 1 (July 20), MLS Cup final.
2. Best Goal: Dom Dwyer’s winner against Houston
Without this goal, Kansas City might not have had the chance to host the MLS Cup final. Also: Aesthetically, it was the most pleasing goal KC scored this year. Graham Zusi plays the ball to a driving Benny Feilhaber. He then executes a sublime chip into the path of Dwyer, who takes a hesitation step around the sprawling Houston goalkeeper to bury the Dynamo.
Runners-up: Feilhaber’s volley from outside the box against Colorado; Zusi’s floating shot-cross (“shross”) against Chicago.
3. Best Goal Celebration: Claudio Bieler
There were big shoes to fill when Kei Kamara left town for good in September. He was the chief architect for Sporting KC celebrations. Bieler answered the challenge after scoring the goal that knocked the Revolution out of the playoffs, managing to cram three separately awesome celebrations into one. First, he points to his chest (“I got this”), cups his ear to the crowd (“I can’t hear you”) and, finally, puts a finger to his lips to quiet New England .
4. Best Look: Sporting KC’s argyle kit
Sporting KC unveiled a new primary kit back in February, but the soccer-fashionista world took notice for real in April when Sporting KC took the field in the black-and-argyle third kit. The hot-selling kits finally hit the “wear them to the game, wear them to the club” aesthetic that Sporting had been aiming for since 2011.
Runner-up: Peter Vermes epitomizing toughness with no hat and no gloves during the MLS Cup final.
5. Best “Soccer Has Arrived in Kansas City” Moment: MLS Cup celebration
This year had several benchmarks that fans will always look back on: Sporting sold out every MLS match, packed the stadium for a key World Cup qualifier and set the stadium’s attendance record (21,650) on the coldest night in the history of Major League Soccer on Dec. 7. But packing the Sprint Event Plaza at Union Station just to see the MLS Cup trophy and congratulate the team’s accomplishment on basically two days notice? That’s impressive, Kansas City.
6. Best Player: Graham Zusi
He might not have hit the individual heights of his 2012 season, but Zusi was Kansas City’s most consistent and dangerous player throughout the year. Zusi finished with six goals and assists and a spot on the 2013 MLS Best XI. This was also the year he became a stalwart on the U.S. men’s national team with 12 appearances. More than that, he scored one of the most important goals in Mexican history — becoming San Zusi in Mexico after scoring a goal for the U.S. against Panama that allowed El Tri to qualify for the World Cup playoffs.
Runner-up: Matt Besler, who not only had a typically great year marshaling KC’s defense, became the de facto starting center back for the U.S. men’s national team.
7. Best “Most Interesting Man in the World” Candidate: Aurelien Collin
The rugged Frenchman led MLS in yellow cards (13), playoff goals (3), borderline-reckless tackles (too many to count) and clothing lines (1). He’s had a really busy year.
8. Best Player to Follow on Twitter: Eric Kronberg
The likely successor to departing legend Jimmy Nielsen in Kansas City’s goal is also, without a doubt, one of the funniest athletes to follow on Twitter. Whether it’s observational humor or trolling his fellow players, Kronny has held the SKC social media belt since he joined Twitter.
Runner-up: Dom Dwyer, because he likes to retweet his haters.
9. Best Timing: Benny Fielhaber
He went from a tactical omission in September and October to the architect of the winning goals against New England and Houston that kept KC’s MLS Cup dreams alive. Before the season, Peter Vermes said Feilhaber had “the solutions” for KC’s problems in the final third. It took him seven months to provide those “solutions,” but he finally showed them off.
Runner-up: Paulo Nagamura, who returned just in time to save KC’s midfield from the brink of disaster.
10. Best Player Who Doesn’t Get Enough Love Outside of KC: Seth Sinovic
The Overland Park native was only the most consistent left back in Major League Soccer. No need to make a big deal of that, right? He doesn’t show up often in the box score (just three assists in 2013), but his solid defensive work and durability (led all SKC players with 3,703 minutes played in all competitions) was instrumental in keeping the league’s best defensive record for the second year in a row.
Runner-up: Oriol Rosell.
11. Best Juggling Act: Peter Vermes
Vermes’ pattern of rotating his forwards (he played six players in three forward spots in the playoffs) could’ve been a disaster. Like watching someone juggling chainsaws, there’s the possibility that it might go completely and horribly sideways. There were dodgy moments when you feared he would slip and drop one. Instead, he pulled it off. Barely. Dom Dwyer and C.J. Sapong did the hard work needed to win the ball back and push defenses at home. Teal Bunbury and Jacob Peterson helped KC defend and stretch defenses on the road. Graham Zusi played wherever he needed to on the field and Claudio Bieler came on against New England and Salt Lake to help close out the game. Thankfully, Aurelien Collin managed to help the team out with three playoff goals.