It was still the preseason, probably sometime in late February or early March, when Jimmy Nielsen called his Sporting Kansas City teammates together.
“Before this season started, it’s a tradition for me to make a speech if I’m the captain for the team,” Nielsen recalled Tuesday at Livestrong Sporting Park during a press conference for the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup championship game.
Nielsen, a Danish-born goalkeeper who turned 35 on Monday, knows he’s in the twilight of his career. He wanted to make sure the entire team understood the opportunity laid out before them.
“I remember I said to the players, ‘I think we have a special group here, and we have a chance to do something special together,’ ” Nielsen said. “(Wednesday) we have the opportunity to make it a special night and make some history.”
That’s because at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Nielsen and Sporting KC will try to prevent the Seattle Sounders FC from winning the de facto national soccer title (and earning a berth to CONCACAF Champions League) for the fourth straight season.
Oh, and in doing so, Sporting KC would claim its first outright league or cup final championship in eight seasons.
“I’ve been dreaming of this chance to win a trophy for my hometown club,” Sporting KC defender Matt Besler said. “I’ve thought about the feeling we could have with this moment, and it’s something that I really want. It’s a great chance for us.”
It’s also a chance that isn’t promised again for any player.
Sporting KC hasn’t been to the U.S. Open Cup final since 2004. It’s also been eight years since the club reached the MLS Cup final, so the current generation of players on coach Peter Vermes’ roster has precious little title-game experience.
Among the exceptions is Nielsen.
“I don’t remember the years, but as I told the group today, I’ve been in three cup finals,” Nielsen said. “We don’t talk about the results, but it’s time for me to win a cup now.”
Sporting KC feels the same way as an organization.
On the heels of sea change the last several seasons — new ownership, hiring Vermes, rebranding, opening Livestrong Sporting Park — a win on Wednesday would validate Sporting KC as one of U.S. soccer’s elite clubs.
“We’ve increased our expectations and our standards both off the field and on the field,” said assistant coach Kerry Zavagnin, who played on Sporting KC’s 2004 U.S. Open Cup title team. “Going into the Eastern Conference championship last year with an opportunity to win, we certainly climbed a big mountain over the course of the year.
“However, without a championship, it feels like not everything has been accomplished, and we haven’t reached the summit. This organization expects and they want championships. To be in a final in your home stadium, you can’t ask for a better situation, especially this early in our ascension.”
True, just making it this far after surging to the Eastern Conference regular-season title and championship game a season ago, serves as validation in itself. But still …
“You get into a cup final, you always want to win,” Vermes said. “We’ve come a long way in a short period of time as an organization, but I think it would help take the focus on this sport and this team in this area to another level than it already is.
“At the end of the day, it’s a championship. Since I’ve been involved with the club and its new ownership group in 2007, there has been a real mission to become a team that can compete for championships in this league.”
Even better, Sporting KC hopes to win one — and earn the chance to paint the wall in Livestrong Sporting Park’s northeast corner.