During the inaugural season at Livestrong Sporting Park, the home locker room usually took on a party atmosphere after Sporting Kansas City games last season.
Music blared as the players milled about — laughing and joking, all wearing smiles and eagerly engaging reporters.
But not on Nov. 6.
Silence enveloped Sporting KC’s high-tech oasis as players sat quietly, some with heads in hands and others staring aimlessly at the ground, in the aftermath of the Houston Dynamo’s 2-0 victory in the Eastern Conference final.
“Everybody was extremely disappointed, knowing that we had set the table for ourselves and didn’t sit down to eat well,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said. “We knew we left something on the table.”
More than the thrilling rise to a regular-season Eastern Conference crown from last place after a 10-game road trip to open the season, it’s the empty pit the players felt that evening that stuck with Sporting KC during the offseason.
“We all sat in the locker room with a horrible feeling after the Houston game and went into the offseason with a horrible feeling,” goalkeeper and captain Jimmy Nielsen said. “We don’t want to be in that situation again. We want to be in the MLS Cup final and we want to win.”
In fact, anything less would be disappointing. At least that is the message coming from the entire organization, from CEO Robb Heineman to Vermes to the Sporting KC players.
“Our expectation is that we want to take a step forward, so that would suggest we’ve got to be in the final,” Heineman said. “I think we’ve got the corps of guys to go do that. A lot of things have to fall in place obviously to make it happen, but I have a ton of confidence in the guys and a ton of confidence in the coaches.”
That loss to Houston tainted an otherwise fairytale rise, so Sporting KC is determined to script its happy ending.
“As good of a season as we had last year, I don’t think anybody was satisfied with the way it ended,” Graham Zusi said. “We want to get at least two more wins, so the bar is pretty high. Our goals are pretty clear and simple: It’s to get to the MLS Cup and to qualify for Champions League next year. Everyone is absolutely on the same page about where we want to be at the end of the season.”
With the preseason in the books, the quest to make that happen starts at 6:30 p.m. Saturday against D.C. United at RFK Stadium.
“Everybody is ready and has been waiting anxiously to get back on the field and play games that mean something,” said forward Kei Kamara, one of three players to lead Sporting KC with nine goals last season. “We’re glad the season is here and we expect to be better. That goes for everybody on the squad, first team and second team.”
For the newcomers, like key offseason trade acquisition Bobby Convey, who is expected to ramp up Sporting KC’s attack from the left side, that mentality was central to the desire to join the club.
“It’s nice to come to a team that did well last year, because I think winning’s contagious,” Convey said. “When you win games, everybody feels better and does a bit extra. Guys want to come in earlier and stay later. The last thing I want to do is win the MLS Cup, which is something I haven’t achieved yet. That’s one of the last big career goals for me, and coming from where I was last year I feel like I’ve got a much better chance here.”
Looks like Convey already is fitting in with his new squad, which lost captain Davy Arnaud and Omar Bravo in the offseason but returns most its young, talented core intact.
“We haven’t changed the team dramatically,” Vermes said. “We’ve still got the core group of guys. I know that group is hungry and has shown it can win in this league for the most part. Now, we need our fans to come out to the stadium and support us like they did last year. That’s a big help.”