The Full 90

Sporting's hot start leads to comparisons with champs

Admit it, soccer fans, you’re all wondering the same thing: Does Sporting Kansas City have what it takes to make a run at the MLS Cup?

The cold, hard truth is that only time will tell. The answer won’t come before Dec. 1, but the club’s early-season surge to the top of the Eastern Conference table has the U.S. soccer world buzzing about the possibility.

Fresh off a trip to last season’s Eastern Conference final, Sporting KC, 7-1-0, broke from the gate better than any team in franchise history. A string of seven straight wins opening the season ended in a 1-0 loss on April 21 at Portland, the hard-luck result of an own-goal.

Now, with the unbeaten run finished and Sporting KC coming off its first open date, coach Peter Vermes’ squad heads deeper into the eight-month grind that is the MLS schedule as a heavy favorite to repeat as Eastern Conference champion.

The trick, of course, will be sustaining that momentum. But Sporting KC has been here before, and this year’s team stacks up favorably with those previous title winners.

The club won championships in 2000 and 2004. The then-Wizards hoisted the Alan I. Rothenberg Trophy in 2000 and, four years later, won the U.S. Open Cup and reached their only other MLS Cup final.

“Every team is unique, because it’s a matter of the talent you’ve got and the attitude that you’ve got to have,” said Bob Gansler, who coached the Wizards from 1999-2006. “Success in soccer always comes down to that. It’s always a combination of the talent you’ve got and the attitude those players bring to the field.”

During the 2000 season, the Wizards got it done with talent.

“That season, they were all good individual players who had never won anything in the league,” Gansler said. “That was motivation. They needed each other. They didn’t always like each other or love each other, for sure, but they needed each other to succeed.

“Off the field, they did not go to the same bar together — and that was on purpose. Teammates don’t have to love each other, but they have to respect each other. By that point, all of them had figured out they couldn’t carry a team to a title alone.”

Coming off the worst season in franchise history, that team was made up mostly of spare parts with something to prove.

“Throughout the course of preseason, it was pretty evident that we had a lot of strong personalities,” said Sporting KC assistant coach Kerry Zavagnin, who was a rookie on the 2000 club. “We had a lot of guys come in with something to prove, whether it was Peter (Vermes) being traded from Colorado, Tony (Meola) coming off a (knee) injury and the strong personalities of Preki and Mo Johnston, who were already here.”

With no love lost among players on that roster, it’s definitely a good thing the squad started out 10-0-2 — still the longest the franchise has gone to start a season without tasting defeat — before adversity set in.

“Going through the first 12 games undefeated, that set the bar for where we wanted to head that year,” Zavagnin said. “I can’t say from day one that the MLS Cup was on all our minds. It was more so that we wanted to prove something as individuals and bring ourselves together as a team to become relevant.”

By the time that team endured a 1-5-3 stretch during the summer, any clubhouse fractures had been healed by the realization that the Wizards were greater than the sum of their parts.

“The group of guys held each other accountable on the field,” said Vermes, now the team’s head coach. “They did not let guys get away with things, and we dealt with situations very quickly. We never swept anything under the rug, even when we were winning.”

It worked, but the 2004 team used an altogether different formula — less raw talent, vastly superior team chemistry.

“That team liked each other more than they needed each other,” Gansler said.

Whether it was Josh Wolff and Davy Arnaud’s selfless combination play in the attacking third or Nick Garcia and Jimmy Conrad’s kinship at central defender, those Wizards battled together and battled for each other despite a relatively slow 5-4-3 start.

“They all liked each other and liked making each other look good,” Gansler said.

Perhaps the one thing that team had in common was a sizable chip on its collective shoulder.

“The 2004 team after Preki broke his leg in preseason, all the media geniuses had us in last place or second to last place,” Gansler said. “The guys remembered that. They played 90-plus minutes every game and had no problem being behind. They would battle back.”

Never was that more evident than in the Western Conference finals, when Gansler’s Wizards spotted a San Jose Earthquakes squad led by Landon Donovan and Dwayne De Rosario a 2-0 lead after the opening leg before taking a 3-2 aggregate win.

“It’s like a mural, different hues and different shapes — knowing who you are and how you play best,” said Gansler, who watches Sporting KC with more than a passing interest these days from his home in Wisconsin. He sees commonalities between that edition of the team and the current one. “Are there are similarities in that? Yeah, they’re talented and, yeah, they’ve got the right attitude to perform and compete.”

Still, the eulogy for the 2012 season is far from written. There is endless potential — Sporting KC already has more points (21) than the club’s 1999 team claimed (20), and sits in first place in the Eastern Conference, six points ahead of second-place D.C. United with a game in hand — but this club has yet to face any true tests.

“Until you’re faced with that key moment of key games, you never know how a team is going to respond,” Zavagnin said. “2000 already has its history written, and we can say that that team was good enough to get the job done. This team is writing its own history right now. Hopefully, as the season goes along, our mentality becomes stronger and stronger to the point we can sustain that in key moments.”

With a strong starting 11 and high-quality, veteran depth, Sporting KC has the talent and continues to develop its winning mentality. But it’s a journey without any real destination, yet.

“You’ve got to maintain your approach,” Vermes said. “We’re too far away to worry about the MLS Cup. The key is remembering what is getting you results — how you’ve been playing and how you’re preparing.”

While there are mileposts by which this season’s club might measure itself against the 2000 and 2004 teams, the real lessons that will push Sporting KC were learned late last year.

“It’s that painful lesson of the Eastern Conference final, and maybe being a little naïve in certain situations, that are the reasons our players did the things they did in the offseason and have a hunger to be successful,” Zavagnin said. “That’s the gunpowder of the team right now — the willingness and determination to be better than last year.”