Good teams win trophies. Big clubs win, reload and then win again. On Wednesday evening, Sporting Kansas City can stake its claim as a big club.
It's already American soccer’s most successful reclamation project. Rebranded and revitalized under ambitious local ownership, SKC opened its stunning new stadium in 2011 and transformed a region’s relationship with the sport. The club then cemented that bond with its first title in eight years, claiming the 2012 U.S. Open Cup inside raucous Sporting Park. It was a team with a recognizable style and plenty of substance, crafted by coach Peter Vermes and featuring accessible American stars Matt Besler and Graham Zusi alongside charismatic but relatively inexpensive internationals like Aurélien Collin, Kei Kamara and Jimmy Nielsen.
The foundation had been laid, a winning mindset established and in 2013, Sporting Kansas City lifted the MLS Cup.
“It was a pivotal moment in our step up the ladder. It kind of validated us saying to the guys that we’re doing things right, that we should continue on this path,” Vermes told SI.com when reflecting on the ’12 Open Cup triumph. “There was a belief internally, not only with the players on the team and the staff, but within the community. There was definitely a belief that the things we were doing as a club, from the rebrand to making more investment in the youth academy to having a certain philosophy around building our senior team—all of that cemented at least a belief in the fans in what we were trying to do.”
Vermes built a winner. Then he had to sustain it. That’s what big clubs do. But Sporting isn’t big in several senses of the word. It has no million-dollar players, and Kansas City is more populous than only a couple competing MLS markets. Success had its price. Kamara, Roger Espinoza and Uri Rosell went abroad. The schedule grew congested. Besler and Zusi were worn down by national team commitments and toward the end of last season, the wheels fell off.
Sporting was knocked out of the CONCACAF Champions League and finished the 2014 MLS regular season on a 2-7-1 skid. It then lost in the first round of the playoffs.
Which was the outlier, 2012-13 or 2014? The answer, which will say quite a bit about Sporting’s position on the soccer landscape, may come Wednesday against the host Philadelphia Union in the 102nd Open Cup final (7 p.m., ESPN2, Univision Deportes). A victory at PPL Park would give SKC its third MLS Cup or Open Cup title in four years, which would put it in some elite company.
“It’s tough in our league to become and out-and-out favorite every year,” said midfielder Benny Feilhaber, whose 2013 arrival helped push SKC toward the MLS summit. “Slowly, LA is doing it. But at the same time, it makes it tough for the small-market teams and I think there’s no secret that we’re a team that’s not going to go out and get three, $5 million [Designated Players]. It’s going to be built from the inside out. Peter’s always been good about bringing in guys. I’m a perfect example, where I wasn’t successful in New England and he had faith in me and brought me here.”
Operating under constraints absent in places like LA and Seattle, Vermes didn’t panic at the end of last season. There was no reason to blow it up, even as a move to a stacked Western Conference loomed.
Besler and Zusi would heal. Espinoza (now SKC’s highest-paid player at $750,000 per year) returned from Wigan Athletic and homegrown center back Kevin Ellis established himself as a starter.
Midfielders Krisztián Németh and Soni Mustivar arrived unheralded from Dutch club Roda JC and Romania’s Petrolul Ploiești, respectively. They’ve been solid at times, outstanding at others. Feilhaber called the pair, “completely essential.”
A more forgiving summer schedule allowed Vermes to prioritize the Open Cup. He fielded his starters in SKC’s round-of-32 opener against USL expansion team St. Louis FC and then again against FC Dallas in early July, when Dom Dwyer scored a club-record four goals in a 6-2 rout. By the time it ousted Real Salt Lake in the semis on Aug. 12, Sporting arguably was the hottest team in MLS.
But it’s been rough sailing since. Espinoza broke his foot, and a 5-0 shellacking by the San Jose Earthquakes on Aug. 19 left SKC reeling. Sporting is 1-5-2 in its past seven MLS matches and has dropped to fifth in the West. It’s played each of its four 2015 Open Cup games at home. Out of form, on the road and absent Espinoza, SKC has its work cut out against a Union side desperate to reverse its own flagging fortunes and win its first trophy.
Big clubs handle that sort of adversity. They create a culture and build depth that sustains them through rough patches. Talented players familiar with the system step in and then step up. On Sunday, knowing the Open Cup final was three days away, Vermes started a slew of reserves against the full-strength Seattle Sounders. Sporting held on, outshot Seattle and secured a 1-1 draw as Dwyer came off the bench and scored in the 79th minute.
“I think Seattle is a superpower in the league based on their market and everything else that they do … So for those guys to come in and play 90 minutes and help us get a result was great,” Vermes told reporters following the game.
Vermes and Feilhaber agreed that the current slide isn’t identical to last year’s.
“We were completely exhausted,” Feilhaber told SI.com. “It’s completely different. We’re slowly but surely fitting the pieces back in with injuries and I don’t feel our team is tried in the sense it was last year.”
Espinoza’s fracture is healed, and he's on pace to play before season's end. Defender Ike Opara (Achilles) also should return, and Seth Sinovic (concussion) has been back for a month.
“I think the pieces are falling together,” said Feilhaber, who’s an MLS MVP candidate with 10 goals and 14 assists. “Obviously winning the Open Cup, putting in a good performance, I think would go a long way toward the confidence aspect. I think our team is right there on the doorstep.”
It’s on the verge of a trophy and perhaps, something even more significant. Painting the wall again at Sporting Park would set this club apart as a “small-market” team with a structure and system that can absorb setbacks and roster turnover and still contend for honors. There are different kinds of big clubs, but pretty much all of them can do that.
“We go into every season with the same goal in mind. We want to be competitive. We want to be part of the mix and I’d like to think now, we’re part of the mix,” Vermes said. “Any time a club has a chance to win a championship, it helps propel that club into whatever the next evolution is … You have to take advantage of them. They not only define your career and your time with that club, they also define that club. For a club’s evolution, those are important moments.”
Said Feilhaber, “If we’re able to win this Open Cup, I’d venture to say that behind LA, in the last five years we’re probably the second-most successful team in MLS. That’s a big thing to say with how this league is set up, with some teams spending big amounts of money while we’re not necessarily doing the same. It’s something that Peter’s built and we want to continue doing that. There’s no doubt about it. We have confidence in ourselves that we can be a team that competes every year.”