Graham Zusi, Jimmy Nielsen and Peter Vermes arrived as a pack at the Three Points Club in downtown Kansas City on Thursday evening, the final stop on a day full of them. They walked into a seventh-floor room overlooking the city skyline, then Nielsen came to a brief stop.
His eyes scanned a room filled with media members, team personnel and bright camera lights, the bulbs pointed toward a table holding name tags for the three Sporting Kansas City members.
“Whoa,” Nielsen said. “That’s a lot of people.”
Indeed, Sporting KC isn’t just the latest local flavor anymore. Not this week. The club has attracted the nation’s soccer spotlight.
Sporting KC will face Real Salt Lake for the MLS Cup at 3 p.m. Saturday at Sporting Park.
In one day, Sporting KC will become Kansas City’s first major professional sports team to play host to a championship game since the Royals hosted the St. Louis Cardinals in the seventh game of the World Series in 1985.
The Kansas City Wizards beat the Chicago Fire to win the MLS Cup in 2000, but that game was played in Washington D.C.
“It’s extremely exciting to have this event in our home city,” Zusi said. “It’s a reward for ourselves and our fans for what we did this season. When it comes to that, it’s very exciting.”
It’s not just a first for the city. It’s a first for nearly all of the players, too.
Among the current Sporting KC roster, only Paulo Nagamura and Josh Gardner have played in the MLS Cup. They won the trophy with the LA Galaxy in 2005, though Gardner did not play in the game.
For the rest of the bunch, it’s a new experience — one that will come with a lot of eyes watching. But they’re trying their best not to treat it that way.
“It’s a very exciting moment, but we have to keep it as normal as possible,” Nielsen said. “What we’ve done the whole year to prepare ourselves for each game, week after week, it’s taken us to where we are today.
“We’ve got to keep our cool. We’ve got to keep our emotions calm. But we’re all pumped. We’re all super excited for Saturday.”
It’s been a tempered excitement, Vermes explained.
“As much as it’s nice to be here, we still have unfinished business and one more game,” said Vermes, in his fourth full season as the club’s coach. “That’s what our focus truly is. These guys have been tremendous from that point of view over the last two weeks in preparing for this game on Saturday.”
The extended two-week break means Sporting KC, as of Friday, has played only once over the past 27 days.
And that’s made keeping the emotions in check all the more difficult.
“It’s definitely not an ideal situation for any team,” Vermes said. “... We’ve tried to do everything we can to get some time off, keep the guys fresh and hungry. But we’re ready to get the game on. It’s time to do it.”