The re-branding effort. The dedicated (and often obsessive) local ownership group. The state-of-the-art Livestrong Sporting Park. The Eastern Conference Final in 2011. The 7-0 start this season. The rocking sell-outs at Livestrong.
It's not like the league (and this city) hadn't been put on notice before last night that Sporting was coming.
Well, last night's win over the Seattle Sounders in the U.S. Open Cup was a big, bright, flashing, neon sign:Sporting Kansas City has arrived.*
*Of course, getting this trophy wasn't always pretty. That's soccer, though; a one-off Cup Final is usually decided by the slimmest of margins. There will be time to talk tactics and the penalty kicks later.
You probably already know that this isn't the first time the franchise has won a trophy. The Wizards earned three: The 2000 Supporter's Shield and MLS Cup, and the '04 U.S. Open Cup.
However, we live in a different world now than we did 8 years ago. This is a "What Have You Done For Me Lately" world, where instant analysis is definitive and you're judged almost solely by the number of re-tweets you generate.
For soccer in this country, this is also a post-Beckham world, with the talent, visibility and profile of Major League Soccer growing more and more by the day. (Even if U.S. Soccer still makes curious decisions like awarding a major Cup final to a tertiary -- at best -- cable network. That won't "grow" the game guys.)
And, as the sport/league grows, it becomes easier to get left behind if you aren't from a media hub like New York, Los Angeles or Chicago, or if you don't have a (for lack of a better word) gimmick like Seattle's 60,000+ home crowds.
Image is everything.
For a team like Kansas City, firmly planted in the middle of the map (that old "fly-over country" mentality) and the middle of the media-market pack, there's really only one way to get noticed.
Stamp your name on a piece of a silverware.
People tend notice that.**This notice is effective to the local teams too. Don't think the Royals and the Chiefs didn't see The Star this morning or the local news. The last time a non-soccer professional team won a trophy in this city was 1985. 1985. Don't think those teams haven't seen the attendance numbers or the figures on youth soccer participation in this city too.
People will also notice that Kansas City is the first MLS team to qualify for the 2013-14 CONCACAF Champions League. That's the "Adults Table" for Major League Soccer teams.
Since the Champions League adopted its current format (in 2008), only four American MLS teamshaven't
participated: Kansas City, San Jose, Philadelphia and Portland.
That's now just three. And with the San Jose Earthquakes currently holding tight to the Supporter's Shield race, last night's win could be the start of a dramatic shake-up to the league's status quo.**The current four U.S. MLS teams in the 2012-13 CL: Houston, Salt Lake, Los Angeles and Seattle. Those are the four "big" teams in MLS. Each has made at least two CL appearances since 2008. Salt Lake reached the finals in 2010. Hard to believe that two of them possibly won't qualify for next year. Also: Canadian MLS teams qualify separately from American teams. That's the only explanation for Toronto is in this year.
Can Sporting KC's ownership group latch on to this success and make it sustainable?
This is perhaps the greatest question we're left with. All signs on the field and off point to yes. But remember our history in this city: After the '04 run, the Wizards charged to the MLS Cup Final. They lost that game and, quite frankly, weren't really the same until last year. From 2005-2010, Kansas City made the playoffs twice and only one a single playoff game. The team was nearly relocated out of Kansas City to boot.
Sporting Kansas City have arrived. Again. Now, the question is: Can they stay there?