Robb Heineman stood alone near the penalty box on Wednesday where Sporting Kansas City had just earned a shootout victory against the three-time defending champion Seattle Sounders FC in the final of the 99th Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup at Livestrong Sporting Park.
He’d already celebrated deliriously, spent a private moment with Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes and others and watched the confetti fly in the soccer cathedral he helped build.
But before he watched Sporting KC take its victory lap with the three-foot-tall silver trophy, before he watched goalkeeper and captain Jimmy Nielsen climb a 20-foot ladder to “paint the wall,” Heineman stepped back from the scene and enjoyed a private moment — as private as possible amidst a cheering throng of 18,863 fans — to soak in the moment.
Since buying Sporting KC with the OnGoal group in August 2006, Heineman, who is the club’s president and CEO, always has been vocal about his desire to turn the club into a consistent championship contender.
That promise has been realized.
In a remarkably short period of time, Sporting KC has become one of the model franchises in U.S. professional soccer.
Milling about the confetti-covered field as the celebration kicked off, the only thing wider than the smile Heineman wore was the scarf draped around his shoulders.
“That is the first of many,” he said. “And hopefully, it’s just the first this year.”
Beating Seattle for Sporting KC’s first championship in eight years validates everything Sporting KC set out to do in rebranding the once-flagging club and erecting a temple for soccer in Kansas City, Kan.
So, henceforth, let Wednesday night be known as “The Shootout.”
Physically spent and emotionally drained, Sporting KC faced a potentially cruel fate.
By most accounts, Heineman’s team had played better through 120 minutes — regulation plus two 15-minute overtime periods — but with the game still deadlocked 1-1. A penalty-kick shootout would decide which team hoisted the U.S. Open Cup.
It was the first such tiebreaker in the $200 million, 14-month-old stadium’s history.
“PKs can really be a mean thing, and it’s not a fun thing for the people involved,” goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen said.
Shootouts tend to be notoriously fickle and don’t always reward the most-deserving team, but Sporting KC found the promised pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, capping a night that started with a 43-minute delay from a hail-and-lightning-filled downpour, but ended with Sporting’s first cup title in the OnGoal era.
“I ran out to the middle before we kicked off the shootout and I told the guys, ‘No matter what happens, stay focused on the next guy. Don’t get caught up in what just happened. Stay focused on the next shot,’ ” Vermes said. “The guys did a great job with that, and Jimmy came up huge.”
The shootout started well for Sporting KC with Kei Kamara burying his shot from the penalty spot.
“Coach asked me first or fifth (in the shootout), and I said first,” Kamara said. “I wanted to get it over with and get us started on the right foot.”
He did, but Brad Evans immediately answered Kamara’s opening salvo.
By the time midfielder Graham Zusi’s try — the fourth of five for Sporting KC — sailed over the crossbar, title-winning prospects seemed bleak for the home side: Each sided had converted twice, and now Seattle had two shots left to Sporting’s one.
But Sporting took control when Nielsen denied Christian Tiffert with a sublime diving save to his left.
That brought up Sporting’s Paulo Nagamura, whose initial try, a blast to the right side, was saved by Michael Gspurning. But Gspurning had come off his line too early, resulting in a retake.
“Before the shootout, we had mentioned that to the ref,” Besler said. “We watched film, and their goalie likes to cheat a little bit and come out before the shot. That’s something Jimmy told the ref before the shootout, and he got caught.”
Given a second chance, Nagamura — his left cheek covered in a blood-soaked bandage from an early-game collision with Sounders midfielder Alex Caskey — put Sporting KC in front with a low roller inside the left post.
“I think I’m going to have to have a few stitches, but I’ll be all right,” said Nagamura, who ended up with eight facial sutures. “There was not a chance I was coming off. I knew I had to be on the field and help my teammates to get the championship tonight.”
When Nielsen unnerved Eddie Johnson, baiting Sporting KC’s former striker into shooting high, finally it was time for Nagamura, Heineman and the rest of the organization to celebrate.