Vahe Gregorian

Sporting Kansas City gets ‘storybook ending’

It was 22 degrees and soon to dip on Saturday night at Sporting Park, making for the most frigid MLS game on record as Sporting KC and Houston kicked off for the MLS Eastern Conference title.

Welcome to the ice follies.

“The field was almost frozen; the ball started to get almost dead,” Sporting KC defender Matt Besler said. “It’s just different. Your face starts to freeze up about 15 minutes into each half, so you can’t talk as well.”

But that ultimately proved merely a color point after Sporting thawed out from a worrisome start for a 2-1 victory.

The team thus advanced to the third MLS Cup final in franchise history and, significantly, the first under the umbrella of the “Sporting” rebrand.

“Kind of the makings of a storybook ending,” said C.J. Sapong, who scored a crucial tying goal minutes after Sporting was scorched in the third minute.

For all the remarkable breakthroughs the organization has cultivated and enjoyed the last few years, this magnificent stadium, the clever merchandising, the connection it’s created with fans, this moment still was a necessary validation.

“It’s easy to say that now that we’ve accomplished this, right?” Sporting coach Peter Vermes said, smiling and adding, “Everybody has that hurdle they have to get over. And to accomplish that in such a young time in our maturity level of our team is fantastic.”

“Gigantic,” he called it, too, as part of fulfilling the major financial and emotional investments made by the new ownership group and fans.

“Three years ago, I think we were very new to this,” Vermes said, adding, “I think our fans were new to it.”

Not any more.

And maybe that holds some meaning beyond the burgeoning Sporting devotees.

When Sporting plays next, at Sporting Park on Dec. 7 against the winner of today’s game between Real Salt Lake and Portland, it will be seeking Kansas City’s first championship in any sport since 2000, when the team then known as the Wizards won the MLS championship.

“Those are days that are dwindling fast in (fans) memories,” Sapong said, “so it’s nice to give them something nice and fresh.”

And that’s just the most immediate and promising prospect in a rich, if not unprecedented, time on the local sports scene:

The Chiefs are 9-1 for just the second time in franchise history; the Royals are coming off their best season in a generation; Kansas is a national-championship basketball contender and Mizzou is a win away from securing the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division title.

Sporting’s victory represents the first time in MLS history that one city has hosted an All-Star Game, a U.S. men’s national game and the MLS Cup Final in the same year.

Pointing to what Sporting’s rise has meant to MLS, league president and deputy commissioner Mark Abbott said, “We’re truly thankful for what they’ve done” as he presented the conference trophy after the game.

Even Houston coach Dominic Kinnear had similar thoughts, noting that if his team had to lose, having a cup final at Sporting Park “is a good thing for the MLS.”

Asked to elaborate, he added that “the atmosphere is incredible; I think what they’ve done here in a short period of time (under the new ownership group) has been incredible. All credit goes to Kansas City: the stadium, the fan support, the complete turnaround of this franchise.”

Thanks to a nice turnaround after an inauspicious start Saturday.

“We never panicked,” Vermes said.

And they might have had reason to.

Never mind the warmth generated by a stadium-record crowd of 21,650 and some radiant heating from pre-game festivities: twin spotlights on the elusive division trophy and a video montage that included Sporting players venting about knocks against them and a narrator boasting, “This is the night we’ve been waiting for (and) tonight we fight for this city.”

Sporting still seemed in suspended animation to start the game, surrendering the third-minute goal to Houston’s Oscar Boniek Garcia.

If Sporting had ice in its veins for this showdown, it seemed to be literally, not figuratively.

Houston specializes in clampdowns, and the Dynamo had taken a major first step toward ousting Sporting from the playoffs for a third straight year.

But almost before that reality had even set in, Sporting had tied it 1-1 on a goal by Sapong, who evidently thrives in such conditions considering his favorite saying (apparently derived from the “M*A*S*H” TV show):

“What is life,” it goes, “if you don’t take your pants off and slide on ice?”

Explaining after the game, Sapong said, “That’s how I go about life, I feel like you’ve got to take risks. Nobody wants to be a homebody or always take the safe route. You don’t get any joy or any experience or adventure out of life.”

He helped create Sporting’s next excellent adventure with the goal that changed the dynamic against the Dynamo.

Then Sporting took a 2-1 lead on Dom Dwyer’s goal in the 63rd minute and fended off Houston the rest of the way.

So what if conditions were less than ideal?

“Probably be colder in two weeks,” Sapong said, smiling.

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