Five years ago Sporting Kansas City won their second MLS Cup. It was an amazing season for a team and city that was experiencing the upswing of a tremendous resurgence.
After seasons of apathetic support in cavernous Arrowhead or dealing with the tiny confines of a minor league ballpark, the former Kansas City Wizards had re-branded, moved into a new stadium and were looked at as a model for starting over.
Since the name change in 2011, Sporting KC had won the U.S. Open Cup in 2012, their first hardware since 2004, and were filling their beautiful new stadium with rabid fans hungry for trophies in a city that was starving for professional sports success.
Peter Vermes had his team at the forefront of a new (in MLS) high-press, in-your-face strategy that others would soon copy but were still trying to figure out.
Even with the high-press and attack game plan that was SKC’s signature style, the beginning of the still-high-press-but-more-possession-based team of 2018 was starting to show through.
Veteran captain Jimmy Nielsen was in goal with a stingy, league-leading defense in front of him. Physical and intimidating defender Aurelien Collin and feisty forward Dom Dwyer were being balanced with quality possession passers like defender Matt Besler, midfielders Uri Rosell and Benny Feilhaber along with Graham Zusi in the attack.
Add in the wily veteran presence of Paulo Nagamura and Sporting KC was a team that could match up with anyone in the league.
Real Salt Lake was their opponent, a team Kansas City already had a history with stemming back to a preseason
fight “incident” in a past year. Throw in some conceited talk from Salt Lake about playing better soccer, a manager that pundits fawned over, players on both teams that were willing to commit professional fouls and these two teams were destined to clash.
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- Collin framed by the Cup that he would later help deliver to Kansas City Thad Bell
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- Collin redeems earlier defense and heads it home to level the score. Thad Bell
- When it is so cold you do push-ups with a cracked rib to stay warm. Thad Bell
- Rimando wants a piece of paper like Jimmy Nielsen has. Thad Bell
- Naga celebrations are the best. Thad Bell
- Collin put away his penalty in the tenth round to give SKC the lead. Thad Bell
- Jimmy is ready Thad Bell
- Hometown hero and future captain taking it all in as a champion Thad Bell
- Raising the cup. Love Bieler’s face. Thad Bell
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- Cold, exhaustion and emotions written across the face of the champs. Thad Bell
- The KC tradition of painting the wall Thad Bell
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It was cold in Kansas City that day.
At game time it was an optimistic 20 degrees and steadily dropped throughout the match. The field was hard and crunchy and ice deposits could be seen sparkling on the field like little diamonds. When players slid and tore the field up, frozen hard chunks with bits of ice were left as debris from the battle taking place.
Did I mention it was cold?
For the first time in my life I used hand warmers. It did not help my cameras though. One lens would focus like it was moving in molasses and was never the same after that game. Another didn’t want to focus at all.
For the players it wasn’t just a battle versus their opponents. They had to survive nature.
And so did the rest of us.
Sporting KC’s lineup was no surprise. Vermes went with what he thought was best but it did not take long before he was forced into changing his lineup. SKC’s Rosell was injured in a tackle and Lawrence Olum was sent in to replace the star defensive midfielder in the 8th minute. Rosell came from Barcelona and could be counted on to control the game, shield the defense and move the ball. Olum could play several spots well, but nobody was better at d-mid that year than Rosell, so losing the Catalonian mid was a definite blow to Sporting KC’s chances.
Sporting KC had the better possession but RSL had the better chances through most of the game, hitting the post and coming close a couple times. Early in the second half the visitors took control.
When the home team was unable to clear a ball sufficiently, Salt Lake punished them and took the lead in the 52nd minute. The dreaded (see what I did there) Kyle Beckerman intercepted the clearance, fed Alvaro Saborio who then slotted it past Nielsen.
The pace picked up after the goal and Sporting KC created some more chances but it was a defender that finally broke through to level it.
Winger Graham Zusi dropped his corner kick just outside the six-yard box where Collin was beating Chris Schuler in his run. The ball darted off of Collin’s dome just inside of the post where Nick Rimando had no chance.
With it level at one each, both sides tried to win it while not giving up too much on the defensive side.
The game remained level throughout regulation and extra time. The teams lined up on the field and the keepers headed to the Cauldron end. Jimmy Nielsen studied his cheat sheet of RSL shooters while Rimando worked the ref.
Kansas City fans have become accustomed to finals going to penalties now but then it is was not as “normal” as it is now. SKC had won the U.S. Open Cup the year before when the Seattle Sounders Eddie Johnson launched his shot into orbit. But other than that game, finals were not as common in Kansas City in 2013.
Claudio Bieler got Sporting KC off to a good start when he got Rimando to go the wrong way and pounded it into the net.
As Saborio walked up, Nielsen whipped out his cheat sheet and made sure that the RSL shooter saw him. Whether it was the weather, or being psyched out by Jimmy’s piece of paper, Saborio went high over the middle and into the crowd.
When Nagamura stepped up, it was expected he would finish it. The Brazilian mid has ice in his veins in big games. Rimando went the wrong way and Nagamura buried it in the corner.
Ned Grabavoy goes left and a diving Nielsen easily blocks it.
With a 2-0 lead in penalties KC was starting to feel confident. Of course that is when it all goes wrong. Future captain Matt Besler took a quick step and fired. Rimando being his team mate in U.S. camps may have helped or he just guessed correctly. Either way Besler was stuffed by the RSL keeper.
When Beckerman stepped up he went high down the middle as Nielsen dove to the side to make it 2-1.
Feilhaber decided he would go down the middle as well. Rimando started to go to his right but came back up and got a hand to the shot but it still slid in under the crossbar to make it 3-1 for SKC.
Joao Plata went high left just over Nielsen’s outstretched hand to close the gap to 3-2.
With Rimando correctly diving to his left, Zusi may have tried to put a little extra on it but it lifted up and skimmed off the top of the crossbar.
Javier Morales stutter step gets Nielsen going one way so he could go the other to tie it up at 3-3 after five rounds.
With no plan after five shooters, the players start deciding who will go next. KC native Seth Sinovic steps up and easily puts it past Rimando. Chis Schuler responds. CJ Sapong rolls one inside the post. Tony Beltran powers one that Nielsen almost gets a hand on.
5-5 after seven rounds.
Lawrence Olum steps up and gets Rimando to go the wrong way but slides it wide of the post. With the crowd silent the Salt Lake fans in the far corner could be heard cheering as they knew they could win it on the next kick.
Sebastian Velasquez steps up with RSL players and fans confident they will win it all in a few seconds. Velasquez pounds it to Nielsen’s left but far too close to the man known as The White Puma. Nielsen easily blocks it and the RSL confidence is broken.
5-5 after eight rounds.
Rimando goes the wrong way on Chance Myers and Nat Borchers goes down the middle just avoiding Nielsen.
6-6 after nine rounds.
The tenth round. Only one non-keeper left on each team. Aurelien Collin and Lovel Palmer. The last two guys each team wants taking penalties. If you watch this video with interviews from both teams, Collin was last for a reason. He was not good at them in practice. He “would miss 14 out of 15,” Nielsen said. Vermes was hoping he would put it on frame at least.
The man who had scored to level the game for Sporting KC was the one they had the least confidence in scoring a penalty, but they now needed him the most. If he could head it maybe they would have had more confidence in the French defender scoring.
Collin did not seem to care what anyone thought. He stepped up and placed the ball just off the inside of the post and just past Rimando’s hand. The RSL keeper had went the right way, had almost got a hand on it.
But he didn’t.
Palmer stepped up looking a little nervous. The Jamaican was not a normal penalty taker either but he had to put it in the net to send it to the next round.
Watch the video of his attempt. Palmer runs up and just before he strikes the ball, it moves. It rolls toward the goal a little bit. He hits it and it goes high, just off the underside of the crossbar and back out.
Sporting KC wins their second MLS Cup in the coldest cup in MLS history.
The next 30 minutes or so involves tears, confetti, trophy presentations, wall painting and not even noticing the cold anymore.
Looking back at key moments/memories
For me, games often come down to a few moments that make the difference and a few moments that make the memories. These are some of the moments that I will remember forever.
Moment 1: When the teams were on the field before the game I was looking for an interesting shot with the Cup in the foreground and the team or stadium in the background. Collin was perfectly lined up when I zoomed in a bit and it almost looked like he was rising from the cup. Later I thought it was like a French genie coming to grant a wish. It seemed foreordained that he play a key role in the game.
Moment 2: Collin scoring to equalize. Collin’s play could be high-risk vs high-reward. He often roamed forward looking to break up plays or make plays. Sometimes he was beat and had to make a spectacular play in the other direction. He was good in the air on both ends though.
Moment 3: Every twist and turn up to the last round of the penalties and then the least likely guy puts it perfectly to put SKC on top for good. Collin was a big game player that day.
Moment 4: That ball movement right before Palmer struck it. I don’t know if there was a gust of wind, a small tremor or if the entire Cauldron section inhaled at the same moment but that ball moving had to throw off the kick. At least a little bit. Maybe it was more of the Collin-the-genie magic.
Moment 5: Finding out after the game that Nielsen played through the game with at least one cracked rib but was still diving and blocking shots in the penalties like he was an uninjured 20-year-old. As much respect as I had for that man already nearly doubled in size that day.
Moment 6: Seeing my family, my friends celebrating the win. Seeing tears of joy on my daughter’s face. Being on the field for that moment.
Congratulations to Atlanta
Atlanta United is a fantastic, talented team with some amazing fan support. Hopefully this trophy means as much to you as it did to Kansas City when we won it.
I know it all seems easy right now and that you can win every year. That is what all fan bases think when they win. Maybe you will but repeating is even harder than winning it the first time. Just ask Toronto.
Savor the memories. Maybe you will be there again next year. Maybe it will be a decade or two.
See you in 2019.