After a fairly cantankerous start, MLS Cup 2013 eventually developed into an exciting, end-to-end game, played between two worthy sides, who in the end could only be separated by penalty kicks.
Spurred on by the home crowd, who braved the freezing temperatures, Sporting Kansas City were not to be deterred by the early loss of influential Spanish midfielder Oriol Rosell or going a goal down to an Alvario Saborío effort, as they overcame a resolute Real Salt Lake side to win their first league title since 2000.
While it was the MVP, Aurélien Collin, who headed in the crucial equaliser from a corner in the second half, before later driving home the deciding penalty kick, special plaudits should be reserved for Danish keeper Jimmy Neilsen who, playing with broken ribs, served as the shootout hero. After an admittedly shaky 120 minutes in goal, the 36-year-old club captain pulled off a pair of excellent lunging saves when it truly mattered to down RSL, as Sporting became only the fifth franchise to claim multiple MLS Cups.
No one can say SKC did not deserve this title either – one which has been nearly three years in the making. It’s a turnaround, both on the field and off it, which of course has been well documented over the past season. Struggling commercially as one of the league’s smaller-market sides, the then-Kansas City Wizards were largely irrelevant in their own city, until a group of innovative and ambitious local businessmen purchased the team from the late Lamar Hunt in August 2006.
Relocation to Rochester was even considered at one point by ownership but savvy marketing saw the club rebrand in the winter of 2010 and the opening of Sporting Park in mid-2011, as the turn in fortunes began to take shape. With the new venue visibly injecting life into a formerly floundering franchise, head coach (and former KC player) Peter Vermes would go about constructing one of the deepest and most physical squads in MLS, leading Sporting to first-place regular-season finishes in the Eastern Conference in 2011 and 2012 and to the 2012 US Open Cup title.
Despite the departures of key players Roger Espinoza and Kei Kamara, that form duly continued in 2013, as SKC rode the league’s stingiest defence (just 30 regular-season goals conceded) to a second place finish in the Eastern Conference, behind Supporters’ Shield-winners the New York Red Bulls, before embarking on a playoff campaign which eventually saw them crowned MLS Cup champions.
Backed by the raucous support of “The Cauldron” at Sporting Park, which rivals the likes of Portland and Seattle for atmosphere, the trophy win on Saturday only serves to reiterate how the future for SKC looks undoubtedly bright. While fans are resigned to accepting the eventual departures of star players Matt Besler and Graham Zusi (especially should they both impress with the national team in Brazil next summer), for now they remain an integral part of a side which also boasts exciting young pieces, such as Oriol Rosell, Dom Dwyer and Soony Saad, to go along with league veterans like Paulo Nagamura and Benny Feilhaber.
In fact, SKC’s turnaround and current healthy position could really be a metaphor for the league’s own recent surge in popularity. After clearly its most successful season ever, MLS fan support and quality of play bears virtually no resemblance to ten or even five years ago, and that’s a trend which is only going to keep moving upwards as the head office looks for ways to further expand its reach, new big-name stars arrive and clubs like New York City FC enter the picture.
Sporting themselves are playing a big part in that growth, as a professional, proactive and fan-friendly organisation, who translate success away from the field into results on it. They’re a great model, not simply for MLS but for franchises across pro sports, and their success is richly deserved.