The soggy and humid August evening had left the two sides deadlocked for most of the night. They could not settle the match in regulation, then it was the same in extra time. In the penalty kick shootout, the momentum had swung back and forth like a pendulum until we were here at this one, decisive moment.
The night was all about waiting. For Sporting Kansas City, it had been eight years which may as well have been 80 since their last taste of a title. For the crowd there at LiveSTRONG Sporting Park, weather delays and an even match had sent the contest to its limits as the evening grew later as the final man was sent to take his shot.
Then, a wave of light blue and a section of electric green collectively held their breath as former Wizard Eddie Johnson stepped up to the spot.
“I just don’t get it”
Initial comments from the fanbase in November 2010 when the ownership announced the name change from the Kansas City Wizards to Sporting Kansas City were mixed at best. There had been a lot of positives stemming from the sale of the club in 2006 from Lamar Hunt to OnGoal, highlighted by a new soccer-specific stadium. Not only was the club making strides in cementing itself as a modern MLS club, they had allayed the fear that the team would relocate. The team had drawn the least amount of fans in the league four seasons running from 2005-2008, but attendance was trending up as the team grew closer to a permanent home.
Still, the next phase of the innovation with the name and color change was not met with immediate satisfaction from many voices in the fan base and around the league. Soon, however, that would not matter.
In 2011 the re-brand took visible shape with a new stadium, a new name, new colors, new kits, and, most importantly, a winning team. Sporting Kansas City rattled off several wins en route to winning the Eastern Conference and a full stadium of soccer fans old and new set the city on fire with soccer fever. The storybook season, however, was cut short in the playoffs by the Houston Dynamo.
In 2012 the momentum continued as Sporting KC lit up with league with seven straight wins to start the season. They established themselves as a legitimate contender and tore through the 2012 edition of the US Open Cup with a favorable draw that put them at home for three of four pre-final matches. After dispatching the Philadelphia Union 2-0 on the road in the semifinals, Sporting KC were on their way to their first US Open Cup final since 2004 and the campaign to “Paint the Wall” was on.
Both teams were rolling.
In 2009, the Seattle Sounders won the US Open Cup their first year as an MLS side. They followed it up with a repeat title in 2010. Then they did it again in 2011. In three years in the league, Seattle had picked up three trophies and seemed poised to do it again in 2012.
On the other side, Sporting KC were no slouches either. They were contenders for the Supporters Shield and fielded one of the best defenses in the league. Midfielder Roger Espinoza had just come off a breakout performance in the 2012 Olympics for Honduras and would return just in time for the match. This final would showcase two of the better teams in the league.
Going into the match Sporting KC’s defense took a hit as Aurelien Collin was suspended due to yellow card accumulation. Collin had been a stalwart alongside Matt Belser in the center of the back line, leaving a possible vulnerability for Seattle’s potent attack.
Lightning and rain covered the sky as the match approached on August 8th. The start was delayed and the stadium was now covered in rainwater, but the 92 degree weather created a sweaty mass as the stadium filled to seating capacity. A substantial delegation from Seattle created an emerald corner on the Southeast end of the stadium, while the rest was filled with Sporting Blue. Rainbows adorned the sky as the storm rolled away and it was time for kickoff.
The match itself turned out to be a defensive battle but both teams came close to scoring in the first half. Near misses and close saves kept the teams scoreless and it would stay that way until the last ten minutes of the match.
Sporting KC forward Teal Bunbury attempted to send a cross in that was deflected by Sounders’ defender Zach Scott in the box. Although the decision was debatable, it was determined by referee Ricardo Salazar that the deflection had been a handball and Sporting KC were awarded a penalty in the 84th minute. Fan-favorite forward Kei Kamara put the shot home and gave the home side the lead with just a few minutes to go. All they needed to do was hold on and the trophy was theirs.
The moment of elation was fast-fleeting, however. Two minutes later, Seattle silenced the stadium with a goal of their own; a header by Mauro Rosales off a set piece left Sporting KC keeper Jimmy Nielsen motionless as it tucked away in the corner for the equalizer. The match was level again and the two sides headed into extra time.
Thirty excruciating minutes later, neither side had gained an advantage, meaning the trophy would be decided on penalties.
Kamara put away his penalty off a deflection by the keeper, but Seattle responded in the bottom half of the round with Brad Evans pulling them level. Espinoza went next for the home side and a weak shot toward the center was easily stopped by Michael Gspurning of the Sounders. A Marc Burch completion in the next frame put Sporting KC in a hole and Seattle one step closer to a fourth-straight championship.
Besler went next for Sporting KC and banked the shot in off the bottom of the crossbar, keeping Sporting within range, which would prove important as Osvaldo Alonso skied his penalty over the bar and the teams were even again after three frames. Next up was Graham Zusi, whose chip shot backfired horribly as it crossed over the bar and into the Cauldron. Nielsen, however, saved the day for Sporting by stopping Christian Tiffert’s low attempt.
Originally it looked like Sporting had missed another attempt as Gspurning saved Paulo Nagamura’s shot in the fifth frame, but the sideline referee said Gspurning had jumped his line before the kick (keepers must stay behind the line until the ball is kicked) and ordered a re-do. Gspurning dove to the correct side on the ensuing attempt but Nagamura’s shot snuck right past him into the corner and, suddenly, the Sounders were in a do-or-die situation.
So it was up to Eddie Johnson, the former Wizard who had been sold to play in England had returned to MLS in Seattle at the beginning of the season.
Johnson stepped up.
The stadium rocked with a nervous energy of noise, trying to will the ball anywhere but the back of the net.
Johnson took the kick.
The nervous energy changed to absolute jubilation as Sporting KC mobbed each other on the field. Johnson has sent his penalty over the bar and it was all over. Sporting Kansas City had won the 2012 US Open Cup.
Following the on-field celebration, Nielsen put up the “2012” on the “US Open Cup Champions” column in the Northwest corner of the stadium where the club’s historical accomplishments had been listed. They had just achieved their own historical accomplishment in a city that was thirsting for something more than the successes of the past.
This win was bigger than Sporting Kansas City.
As the Tifo from the Cauldron read at the beginning of the game, this was “For the Glory of the City.” The Royals were still two years away from their miraculous playoff run and three years away from their World Series win. The Chiefs had just come off a season where they fired their head coach and would soon follow that up with a league-worst 2-14 record.
This win in 2012 was the first time in many, many years that Kansas City had a glimmer of sports success. The perception of Kansas City as a town mired in losing sports teams in the 21st century was starting to change and this victory helped move that along.
As for the club, this title solidified Sporting Kansas City as a winner. For new fans, this was their first title with the club and created lifelong fans of those who watched. This was the result of an ownership who put the effort into creating an amazing stadium, professional atmosphere, and an innovative hunger into their club.
The goal now for the club is to remain contenders for US Open Cups and MLS Cups alike, but this title was something more: it was the announcement that Sporting KC were here to stay, and here to win, for the glory of the city.