KANSAS CITY, Kan. – It was a competitive advantage usually foreign to soccer that offered a welcome boost to Sporting Kansas City, which really needed one mid-way through the second half of American soccer’s biggest game.
There was a time out.
It wasn’t official, of course. That would be against the rules. But when Real Salt Lake defender Chris Wingert went down injured in the 63rd minute of Saturday’s MLS Cup final and needed treatment on the field, Sporting had the opportunity to regroup.
The hosts had lost one of their most important players, midfielder Uri Rosell, to an injured ankle early in the first half. The match at sold-out Sporting Park was becoming increasingly short-tempered and in the 52nd minute, RSL took the lead on a gorgeous goal from Álvaro Saborío.
Sporting gathered in a circle at midfield.
“We basically said just to stay calm,” defender Matt Besler said. “At that point in the game there were probably 25 minuets left, which is a lot of time. Especially at home. We’ve proven all year long that the last 20 minutes of a game at home really shift in our favor. The way we play, we wear teams down.”
His SKC and U.S. teammate, Graham Zusi, said, “We didn’t want to get too stretched out. We didn’t want to chase the game too much because Salt Lake’s a good team and they can punish you if you do that. We wanted to continue to play our brand of soccer and be patient and I think we did that.”
That moment of affirmation passed, and Sporting broke huddle and proceeded to practice what it preached. It survived a dangerous RSL counterattack in the 73rd and then leveled the score on a sharp header from defender Aurelien Collin three minutes later. SKC held the advantage in possession through the remainder of regulation and during overtime and nearly won the game on Zusi’s point-blank effort in the 93rd. The match went to penalty kicks tied at 1-1, and SKC maintained its cool in the shootout. After a gripping, 10-round tiebreaker, Sporting was MLS champion at last.
This title wasn’t a year in the making. It was three. Sporting’s story is well known. Once called the Wizards, the team was almost irrelevant in Kansas City when a group of innovative and ambitious local businessmen, who had purchased the floundering club in late 2006, rebranded the organization and opened Sporting Park in 2011. The arena injected immediate life into coach Peter Vermes’ squad, which surged to the top of the Eastern Conference standings and earned the right to host the one-game MLS Cup semifinal. But SKC lost to the visiting Houston Dynamo.
A year later, with the 2012 U.S. Open Cup now in the trophy case, Sporting once again met Houston in the MLS playoffs. Although SKC had finished in first again, 10 points above the Dynamo, it was still unable to solve the postseason puzzle.
“Last year, we went to Houston [for the first leg of the conference semifinals] and we weren’t that familiar with how to win in the playoffs,” said Sporting defender Seth Sinovic, who was among the best players on the field on Saturday. “Houston is huge in this entire thing, not only because they took us out of the playoffs the last couple of years, but they helped us learn to play in the playoffs.”
While Sporting’s owners were building a brand and a business and while Sporting Park was emerging as an American soccer cathedral, the team was on its own journey. To fulfill their ultimate ambition, coach Peter Vermes’ players had to learn to master the moment. Twice they failed. But those failures helped forge a group that came from behind and won in all three playoff rounds this fall.
“It’s maturity. It’s a lot of the same group of guys. The nucleus is the same. But it’s maturity being through those situations,” said Vermes, who added that “you absolutely have to talk about and you have to keep showing certain things” about how to handle high-pressure, high stakes scenarios.
Against the New England Revolution in last month’s Eastern Conference semis, SKC returned home after a 2-1 first-leg loss and trailed on aggregate with 20 minutes remaining in the decider. Sinovic tied it in the 79th and then Claudier Bieler sealed advancement in overtime.
In the conference finals against nemesis Houston, SKC ground out an ugly draw in the opener but yielded a third minute goal in the second leg back at Sporting Park. But the hosts kept their cool and advanced with a 2-1 win.
As SKC huddled on Saturday, those memories were fresh.
“In the past couple of years we were a pretty young team, and I say that in the sense of playoff soccer in MLS,” Zusi said. “We didn’t know how to grind out wins in the past and I think we’ve certainly learned from that. The past couple of finals we’ve been in -- the U.S. Open Cup [last year] was another example of that and tonight – we’re learning how to win in that moment. That kind of championship moment.”
Vermes said that resolve was built over time, through disappointment and incremental success. SKC won the Open Cup on penalties over Seattle. They went 2-0-2 in the group stage of this season’s CONCACAF Champions League and qualified for the 2014 quarterfinals. They learned to make the most of their new but devoted fan base.
“Last year, playing in a [Open Cup] final here at our place was huge for this event today,” Vermes said. “Salt Lake, they’ve had a [CCL] final at home and they had the Open Cup this year [and lost both]. It’s never easy to play a final at home. There’s a lot of pressure on you.”
SKC playmaker Benny Feilhaber missed the losses to the Dynamo, but was a key contributor to this year’s run. He told SI.com that his new teammates “learned from the past two seasons and this time, we learned from New England and Houston. You have to prepare yourself in order to be able to make the most of the opportunity. It’s more than mindset … I think with the way we play, we knew we were going to create chances [toward the end of Saturday’s final]. It’s just having the maturity to not just lump the ball in the box and hope for some kind of miracle to happen.”
Maturity. Confidence. Composure. They’re as much a part of a championship team as skill, depth and fitness and this year, finally, they’ve been woven into the fabric of a organization that had accomplished just about everything else.
“We said [in the huddle] we needed to keep our composure. We knew we had a lot of time and not to panic with the situation at hand … We knew we were going to get our chances,” Sinovic said. “We’ve been in situation where we’ve been down the last couple of years and we lost. We were new to it … Against Houston [in the past], we got down a goal and I think we panicked a little bit. We tried to force the game a little bit.” They didn’t make that mistake again.