The chase for the MLS Cup goes through Kansas City.
It didn't seem possible May 21 when Sporting Kansas City slipped to 1-6-1 with a loss at Seattle, but Saturday's 1-0 win against D.C. United at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., earned manager Peter Vermes and his squad the first Eastern Conference championship in franchise history.
“We never lost hope, but our chances definitely seemed a little slim after starting so slow,” defender Matt Besler said. “But we're champs of the Eastern Conference and that's all we're worried about right now.”
Starting the season with 10 road games as Livestrong Sporting Park was finished, Sporting KC, 13-9-12, sat dead last in the conference even after closing that season-opening stretch with back-to-back draws.
But things turned around as the club settled into its new home.
Fittingly, in a season where home mattered so much, it was Besler – a hometown kid – who delivered the title-clinching win.
He finished a rebound chance with a gorgeous left-footed strike across the face of goal in the 54th minute, giving Sporting KC a lead it wouldn't relinquish and clinching the three points needed to put the conference race on ice.
“It really hits home for me, because I did grow up here and I know how important it is for Kansas City teams to make the playoffs,” said Besler, who graduated from Blue Valley West.
“But we're not done. We're going to enjoy it tonight, but that's just one of our many goals – to win the East. Now, we start our real goal, which is trying to win a championship beginning next week.”
During its previous incarnation as the Wizards, Sporting KC won MLS Western Conference championships in 1997, 2000 and 2004.
Besler's goal came on a Graham Zusi corner kick, which Kei Kamara headed off the right post.
Designated player Omar Bravo won a skirmish for the rebound and tapped it to Besler, who was unmarked and unchallenged as he turned to get the ball on his left foot.
“That was fantastic,” Vermes said. “He's an excellent kid and an excellent player. The kid comes to work every single day. I'm very happy for him to have gotten it, but at the same time it could have been any one of our players. It's a team thing for us.”
For Sporting KC, which improved to 12-3-2 when scoring the first goal, it was goal No. 50 on the season, joining the Seattle Sounders FC (53) and New York Red Bulls (50) as the only teams in the league to reach that lofty plateau.
“We're a team that is really dangerous on set pieces,” Besler said. “We have a lot of guys who can score in those situations. Today I was the one who happened to be in the right spot.” Sporting KC had team MVP Jimmy Nielsen to thank for remaining tied at halftime.
The Danish goalkeeper wasn't tested much early, but D.C. United mustered a furious flurry to close the first half.
Sporting KC had controlled the pace and possession, peppering 13 shots at D.C. United in the opening half, but few were remarkably dangerous chances.
By contrast, D.C. United, 9-13-12, probably deserved a goal or two.
The league's leading scorer, Dwayne De Rosario, drove a through ball up the gut for Stephen King in the 38th minute, but Nielsen raced from his line to the top of the penalty box and prevented a goal with a sliding kick save.
Two minutes later, Santino Quaranta rocketed a knuckler that Nielsen stopped, but the rebound went to De Rosario, whose resulting chip shot landed on top of the Sporting KC goal. Nielsen, who picked up his seventh shutout of the season, also had to punch away another knuckling shot from distance by Austin da Luz in the 42nd minute.
Nielsen even got a little luck in the 92nd minute when Josh Wolff's header clanged off the crossbar as the final seconds ticked away.