The old saying says it'll happen when hell freezes over. Well, hell froze over Saturday and brought Kansas City its first professional sports championship since 2000.
"I can't tell you how proud I am, and how happy I am, for the guys," manager Peter Vermes said. "I know what it's like as a player to win a MLS Cup, and it's a special moment because you'll always have that as a player and nobody can ever take that away from you. For them, I know the trials and tribulations that you go through as a player, and these guys are committed. They love this club. They truly are committed to this city."
For the third time this postseason, and the second in must-win matches, Sporting Kansas City had to play catchup. Forward Alvaro Saborio put Real Salt Lake on the board first in the 52nd minute with a strike from 25 yards out that sent the away supporters into a frenzy.
"You never want to be down in games, but the timing that we go down, it gives us plenty of time to come back," defender Seth Sinovic said. "We don't want to be in that position, but we're a resilient group."
Resiliency was key for Sporting Kansas City, even earlier than the Saborio goal. Midfielder Oriol Rosell had to be substituted just eight minutes in due to a left ankle sprain, the earliest substitution in MLS Cup history.
The injury opened the door for Lawrence Olum, who hadn't played since Nov. 2 against the New England Revolution and was still battling a displacement fracture of his left fibula.
"It's always difficult in any game, let alone a final, when you put a plan together and next thing you know you have to, three minutes into the game, make a substitution of a guy that's been a regular other than if he had too many yellow cards in the season," Vermes said. "He's been a very good player for us all season long, and he's a big part of the way we play, but when Lawrence [Olum] came in, he's come in a lot of games for us over this year and last year, and he's done a very good job.
"There wasn't any hesitation on our part to bring him in. I thought he did a good job, and I thought the rest of the team handled it well over the course of the game too, because sometimes you maybe get a little bit nervous when somebody jumps out of the lineup like that who's an important guy like Oriol [Rosell], but they dealt with it well."
Down Rosell and a goal, the home-side answered back in typical Sporting Kansas City fashion off an Aurelien Collin header in the 76th minute. It was the third goal for the Frenchman in the playoffs.
"I was very lucky that [Graham] Zusi put the ball exactly where I wanted it to," Collin said. "I just had to put my head in, and it went through so I'm happy.
"Honestly, I don't know what I was thinking when I scored. I'm always on the corner kick — I try to do my best — sometimes you go inside, sometimes you go outside, sometimes I don't even touch the ball, so I don't know, I'm just happy I scored."
The tie sent the game into two extra periods and eventually to penalty kicks, the same scenario goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen faced last year in the U.S. Open Cup final.
And like last August, Nielsen came up huge. Sebastian Velasquez had a chance to seal the deal for Real Salt Lake, but Nielsen made sure he or the rest of Sporting Kansas City squad wouldn't be denied a championship, diving to his left to stop Velasquez's shot.
Collin would go ahead to give Sporting Kansas City the score they needed to win on his first penalty attempt ever, but the storybook ending meant more to no one other than Nielsen.
"It's a proud moment," Nielsen said with tears in his eyes. "You know I came here four years ago with the goal of being a champion, and now we're standing with this.
"It's a very proud moment, and as I told my teammates before the game, you want to give everything you have and bring everything you have. You don't want to sit back after a final like this and have the feeling that you could have given a little more, and they gave everything they had."
Sporting Kansas City finishes the year 20-11-8 and more importantly, MLS Cup Champions.