Sporting Park was battered by a brief but ferocious thunderstorm in the early evening hours Aug. 8, 2012, but the night turned out to be perfect for Sporting Kansas City.
At least, that’s how the club and its fans, who packed the stadium for well more than an hour to watch Sporting KC celebrate beating the Seattle Sounders FC in a shootout during the championship game in the 99th Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, remember it.
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“That night was a very special night,” said goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen, who brought the party to a crescendo when he “painted the wall,” affixing the numbers 2-0-1-2 under the heading U.S. Open Cup Champions. “The game got delayed because of horrible weather, but it turns out to be great soccer weather. The whole atmosphere surrounding that night was something you can never forget. It was fantastic.”
Now, Sporting KC wants that feeling again.
Of course, it’s a long road to another title, but Sporting KC begins its championship defense Tuesday night against the Des Moines (Iowa) Menace in the third round of the centennial edition of the nation’s oldest club championship.
Des Moines defeated the Madison 56ers in the first round and Minnesota United FC in the secound round. MLS teams had byes until the third round.
“Winning the Open Cup last year was my first major trophy as a professional,” centerback Matt Besler said. “The feeling that we had after the game was the best I’ve had probably ever playing soccer.”
Besler isn’t alone in that respect.
For many of Sporting KC’s young nucleus of players, the Open Cup title last August remains the pinnacle of their career so far.
“Oh yeah, it’s probably right at the top,” left back Seth Sinovic said. “That’s the biggest championship I’ve ever won personally, so it’s a big one.
“I sprained my ankle in overtime, but other than that I just remember after (Eddie Johnson) missed that last PK (in the shootout) it was pure joy for a good 45 minutes to an hour. Walking around the field with the trophy and all the fans who stayed, it was an incredible feeling and one we definitely want to have again.”
Of course, it won’t be easy. Sporting KC will wear a pretty sizable bull’s-eye as the reigning champions.
“We have a target on our back now, because we are the winners from last year,” said defender Lawrence Olum, who started in Aurelien Collin’s place at right centerback for the title game. “Every team is coming in wanting to take us down.”
Then again, the target was already pretty big merely being an MLS goliath.
Des Moines plays in the Premier Development League, which is the fourth tier of the North American soccer pyramid.
Led by goalkeeper Scott Angevine, a Blue Valley Northwest graduate who signed with Sporting KC briefly last summer, the Menace upset heavily favored Minnesota United FC, which was the runner-up in the second-tier NASL last season, to reach its showdown with a first-tier MLS side.
Obviously, Des Moines will have nothing to lose when it steps on the field at Sporting Park.
“That’s the beauty of this competition,” manager Peter Vermes said. “It gives everybody a chance to participate. It’s the David and Goliath. These guys come in motivated. It’s their MLS Cup, their opportunity to prove they can beat an MLS team.”
Sporting KC has its own dream, though, and crushing the Menace’s dream is the first step.
“It was the first taste for the group of guys that we have here of what winning is like at that level,” Vermes said. “When you get a taste for that, you also get a hunger for that. It’s hard to quench that thirst or that hunger without winning again.”
Sporting KC’s depth will be tested in the coming weeks, but the club won’t make excuses — not with a cup title to defend and another CONCACAF Champions’ League berth at stake.
“Just going around and seeing how happy everybody was, the owners and the fans, seeing everyone stay around for an hour after the game to celebrate with us, it brought a lot of smiles and excitement around the town, which is cool,” right back Chance Myers said. “We want to experience that thrill and give that to our fans and our ownership again.”