The laughter rang throughout the bowels of Livestrong Sporting Park on Wednesday night, and it was coming from Sporting Kansas City’s locker room — with good reason.
Sporting had just completed its second straight beatdown of the Colorado Rapids, a convincing 2-0 victory over the defending MLS Cup champions that sends coach Peter Vermes team to the Eastern Conference finals. The sounds of joy punctuated the achievement, which seemed like a pipe dream only five short months ago.
However, the more telling moment — the one that really describes how far this team has come over the past year — happened many hours before. It also involved laughter, which was shared this time between Vermes and assistant coach Kerry Zavagnin.
What happened is this: Zavagnin simply relayed what Colorado coach Gary Smith was telling newspapers after Sporting’s first beatdown of Colorado in game one of the conference semifinals on Sunday.
Sporting, Smith said, was playing dirty. Three of his players got hurt in the game, which Smith attributed to Sporting’s aggressive style and relatively youthful team. He even went as far to say it resembled “a college game,” and in essence, called Vermes’ team a bunch of bullies.
To which Vermes, who earned a reputation as a hard player during his career, couldn’t help but snicker.
“It’s funny to me,” Vermes said. “Hey look, I know that as a coach, you’ve got to do whatever you can to get your team wound up...but I look at that as the ultimate compliment. I know we’re not a dirty team. We’re a hard team. And we come to play.”
It’s hard to imagine anyone saying this in early June, when it sat dead last in the Eastern Conference with a 1-6-3 record. To Vermes, who coached the team through frustrating 2009 and 2010 seasons, that fact an opposing coach would complain about his team’s approach — in effect, calling them bullies — well, that’s something to revel in.
“I’m not going apologize for having big, strong, physical guys all over the field,” Vermes said.
Nor should he. Because the team he constructed is physical, determined and yes — very talented — as Colorado discovered again on Wednesday.
This was by design. Thanks to Sunday’s win, Sporting entered the second game of the series with a two-goal aggregate lead in the series, which means Colorado needed to beat Sporting by three goals to advance to conference finals. So with homefield advantage – and the cold, rainy weather that came with it Wedneday – one would have understood if Vermes’ team simply played not to lose.
However, that’s not the style of Sporting’s super-aggressive coach, who hates the concept of sitting back and letting the game come to him. And that absolutely showed on this night, as Sporting used smart defense, an aggressive counterattack and two free-kick goals to demoralize Colorado in front of a sellout crowd of 18,565, the largest postseason crowd in franchise history.
“These people are making sacrifices to come out in weather like this,” said forward Kei Kamara. “They’re bringing their kids out. You don’t want them to go home sad.”
They didn’t thanks to Sporting’s game plan — Vermes’ team controlled the pace — and the play of midfielder Graham Zusi, who continued his highlight reel ways by setting up goals by Aurélien Collin (in the 28th minute) and C.J. Sapong (76th minute) off free kicks.
“To really not give up any chances and score two goals on set pieces, that’s big time,” Vermes said.
And if that sounds like coachspeak, you should know that players said Vermes was more excited after the game than normal. Vermes — who has repeatedly played down his team’s performances over the last four months — even admitted to this.
Why? Because on Wednesday, they were physical. They were also relentless, despite a commanding lead in the series. And while Vermes finds it funny when opposing coaches complain publicly about these attributes, another feeling also rises to the surface when he thinks about the fact his team is only one game away from playing for the league title.
“Now,” Vermes said, with a satisfied grin on his face, “you can say we’ve achieved something.”SPORTING KANSAS CITY NOTEBOOK
Designated player Omar Bravo sat out his second consecutive game with a tweaked hamstring. But unlike Sunday’s game in Colorado, Bravo wasn’t even on the 18-man roster.
“He can run, but when he strikes the ball, he feels it,” Vermes said.
Vermes said Bravo could have played, but he is notoriously skittish about asking players with muscle injuries to tough it out. Given the fact Sporting was going to advance to the finals barring a complete collapse – it had a 2-0 lead in the aggregate goal series entering the game – he felt like it would be foolish to risk it.
However, Vermes said it remains to be seen whether Bravo can play in Sunday’s Eastern Conference final.
Sporting’s radio broadcast on 810 WHB was interrupted Wednesday by a malfunctioning line, according to color commentator Jake Yadrich.
Yadrich said fans listening to the broadcast were forced to listen to Fox Soccer Channel’s live feed for roughly 20 minutes of the first half, though 810’s technical staff was able to fix the problem and get Yadrich and play-by-play man Callum Williams back on the air before the end of the first half.
“We had our stadium engineers run down to the truck bay and install a new phone line on the fly,” said Yadrich, who added that no one is sure what caused the malfunction. “But we were to pick up right as the first half ended and give a five-minute recap of what happened in the first half, so it worked out OK.”
Much has been made about the oft-maligned turf at Livestrong Sporting Park, which took a beating during the summer because of a number of events.
But according to defender Seth Sinovic, the turf held up great on Wednesday – despite the steady rain the belted the field before and during the game.
“Considering how it had been in previous games, the field was unbelievable,” said Sinovic, who added he was confident the field would be fine for Sporting’s game on Sunday. “I’m telling ya, it was great. No big chunks (came up) like last few games. It really held up well.”
The club announced Wednesday that Sporting keeper Jon Kempin has been named to the U.S. Under-23 National Team roster for its upcoming training camp in Germany. Kempin, an 18-year old Leawood native, is one of two MLS homegrown players to attend the camp, which will take place Nov. 7-16.
The time of Sunday's Eastern Conference final at Livestrong Sporting Park will depend on what happens in Thursday's match between Los Angeles and New York. If Los Angeles wins, the game will start at 4:30 p.m. If New York wins, it starts at 8 p.m.