Sporting KC's Cup run has been a few years coming
12/07/2013 12:48 AM
12/07/2013 12:48 AM
There have been times this season when Sporting Kansas City's MLS Cup credentials were in doubt.
There were doubts in the stands, the press box and the national media. Some with a bit of merit; some without. Some might persist even today. Some definitely will persist no matter the outcome.
The doubts began in the preseason when KC lost both Roger Espinoza and Kei Kamara to English clubs. Then again after getting run over by Los Angeles and Portland in the spring. After failing to defend the U.S. Open Cup trophy in a 1-0 loss to its affiliate club, Orlando City. After following up the biggest win of the summer (2-1 over today's opponent Real Salt Lake at Rio Tinto Stadium) with consecutive 1-0 road losses to two teams that failed to reach the playoffs. After Kamara left for good on the last day of the summer transfer window. After watching designated player Claudio Bieler struggle with fitness and found himself on the bench.
After falling behind to the upstart New England Revolution 2-1 in the first leg of the first round of the MLS playoffs. After drawing the Houston Dynamo, a thorn in KC's Cup chances each of the last two seasons.
Yet, here we are, the 2013 version Sporting KC just hours away from hosting the MLS Cup. (3 p.m. at Sporting Park, with ESPN handling the coverage.)
It was the 2013 version of this team that finally overcame the Dynamo. The 2013 version finally lived up to the front-office expectations for this club.
That it's this particular Kansas City team — a far-from-convincing but extremely solid and deep squad — to reach this far is a bit of a surprise. But this isn't a Cinderella story. When Real Salt Lake, won in 2009, that was a surprise team. Or Colorado in 2010.
How did we get here? Consider the following facts from this season:
• Sporting KC spent nearly the entire season in the top half of the table and were never (truly) in real danger of falling out of the playoff picture.
• KC is one of only two teams (along with the Supporters' Shield-winning New York Red Bulls) to win at least half of its regular season games (17).
• Also, the team finished just one point off the Supporters' Shield itself and, obviously, earned enough points to host MLS Cup.
• The defense allowed 30 goals in the regular season, only one more than it did in 2012. It was the best defense in the league. Again.
• The heaviest loss this year was 2-0 on the road in Los Angeles. Every other loss (including in the Open Cup) was by just a single goal. (Real Salt Lake's heaviest defeat was also 2-0, and it happened three times.)
• Over its four CONCACAF Champions League matches (including trips to Nicaragua and Honduras), Kansas City allowed just one goal in the process of qualifying for the knockout stage. (They'll play Mexican club Cruz Azul early next year.)
• Only one team in the Eastern Conference had a winning record against Kansas City: Montreal (2-1-0).
There are other facts you can dig up. Other stats. But those by themselves are the resume of a team that, despite dips in form, never wavered that much during the season.
And leads us directly to the biggest achievement: Meeting the high expectations set, internally and externally by the front office and the players.
"I want to win the MLS Cup," goalkeeper and team captain Jimmy Nielsen told me before the season. "The team, the organization, the fan base, the city want that. We are built for a championship this year."
This day has been building for years -- ever since ground was broken on Sporting Park. Up to this point, Kansas City has been close.
But not quite.
The 2011 squad rode a highly-advantageous run of home games and an imperious high-pressure system into the playoffs before falling to the Dynamo in the Eastern Conference finals.
The 2012 version was a better squad with Espinoza and Kamara having career-making seasons; Graham Zusi having an MVP-caliber season; and Matt Besler (Defender of the Year), Jimmy Nielsen (Goalkeeper of the Year) and Aurelien Collin (MLS Best XI) anchoring the league's best defense. That team, memorably, also fell to the Dynamo.
Is this finally Kansas City's year? We'll find out soon. They've done the work to get here.