By Ridge Mahoney
Back in April, long before Sporting Kansas City battled through a season that would eventually match it again against playoff nemesis Houston, Graham Zusihedged a bit speaking about the importance of reaching the MLS Cup title game.
He wouldn’t call 2013 a make-or-break season. He didn’t have to. The ultimate objective was clear. Housed in a great stadium and backed by zealous fans, SKC had twice stumbled short of its objective.
“It’s certainly a goal for us, that’s what we put down on paper as what we want to accomplish this year as different from past years,” said Zusi in reference to Dynamo knockouts in 2011 and 2012.
“We’re certainly going to do everything in our power to get there, to get to that final, and to bring a championship to Kansas City. I’m not going to say this is the only year to do it. You’re constantly trying to evolve as a team and as an individual as much as possible. I’m not going to put a timeline on it but that doesn’t mean we’re not trying to take it.”
Road to MLS Cup 2013:
New England-Sporting KC: 1-2
Sporting KC-New England: 3-1
Houston-Sporting KC: 0-0
Sporting KC-Houston: 2-1
For Zusi and Sporting Kansas City, the time has come. A 2-1 defeat of Houston in its home leg of the Eastern Conference finals has brought the title game to Kansas City, an accomplishment that marks a milestone in the evolution of a team that spent more than a decade in a football stadium and minor-league baseball park.
Head coach Peter Vermesremembers those days well. As defensive linchpin of the former Kansas City Wizards, he lifted the 2000 MLS Cup following a 1-0 defeat of Chicago. Since then, coaches have come and gone, the team was sold by the Hunt family, and a spectacular futuristic facility, Sporting Park, has arisen in what many observers long ago proclaimed as a dead market for professional soccer.
“It’s definitely changed the entire city in that regard,” says Vermes, a native of New Jersey and former U.S. international. “I’d say it’s not a change in the fan base, it’s a change in the whole cult following. It’s been tremendous.”
Its gleaming $200 million home – which is regularly packed with raucous fans and bedecked with banners such as the one that reads “WELCOME TO THE BLUE HELL” -- has already this season staged the league’s All-Star Game and a U.S. Hexagonal defeat of Jamaica, and on Saturday (4 p.m. ET, ESPN) it will complete a unique trifecta of hosting major events. It will also close a circle of sorts, particularly for men like assistant coach Kerry Zavagnin, who came to the Wizards in 2000 for a tryout after fizzling out with the MetroStars, who had traded him to Colorado in exchange for -- Vermes. Reunited in his first season as a Wizard, Zavagnin and Vermes anchored the middle of a championship team that in other respects was anything but top-drawer.
“Peter and I remind each other that these guys look at us and say, ‘Yeah, whatever,” when we tell those back-in-the-day stories,” says Zavagnin, who finished his playing career with the Wizards in 2008. “We have to be careful how often we tell them because they’ll get sick and tired of it, but it’s absolutely true. We’ve told the stories about having to change in the back of our trainer’s truck to get taped. The site where our training facility [Swope Park] is where we also trained in 2000, and it looks a lot different.
“When I came here in January of 2000, I came here for a tryout. I was here for a week and had been picked in the third round [No. 30 overall], and I thought, ‘This is a good opportunity, I’ll see what turns out of it. If I establish myself, maybe I go somewhere else,’ and 13 years later I’m still here.”
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Years before the team officially went up for sale, Robb Heinemann -- a private equity investor who is now CEO -- had lobbied the Hunt family to abandon the home it shared with the NFL Chiefs. Vermes was hired as technical director in November 2006, shortly after OnGoal LLC, a group led by medical software moguls Clif Illig and Neal Patterson, purchased the team from Hunt Sports Group.
A frugal era that could be subtitled “Arrowhead Forever” had ended and a month later the first man to invest in MLS, Lamar Hunt, died. He’d spearheaded the league's startup and built modest MLS stadiums in Columbus and Dallas; OnGoal went all-in.
Sporting Park opened to incredible fanfare in June 2011, endowed with sleek technological features and spectacular amenities. Video screens are everywhere. There are 200 wifi access points. Foodies rave about the menu options. The grass field is impeccable and in their locker room, SKC players can relax on ergonomic chairs.
For Zusi, whose rookie season in 2009 landed him at CommunityAmerica Ballpark and its baseball billboards and room for maybe 11,000 fans to watch action on a field laid at a crazy angle, the worlds couldn’t be more different. He’s one of the league’s brightest stars playing for a flagship franchise with a World Cup on his horizon.
“From what I came into to what it is now, not many words can describe it,” he says. “If you haven’t seen it yourself, it’s tough to comprehend and imagine. I wouldn’t have believed it if you told me back then we’d go to what we have now. It’s been a true transformation. It’s a testament to the ownership group and their faith in the team and really the dedication they put it forth to make it happen.”
By opening day of the new stadium, Vermes -- who had taken over the coaching duties after Curt Onalfo was dismissed in August 2009 -- and his staff were well into the implementation of a 4-3-3 system and more importantly, trying to ingrain a mentality of winning it all. By finally surviving the playoffs to end a 13-year absence from the title game, SKC has also won the right to host it.
Tickets for the championship game sold out in less than an hour. Projected temperatures are in the low 20s. No matter. “The Cauldron” will be bubbling, the blue smoke intense. Scalpers will clean up if their freezing fingers can exchange tickets for cash. What seemed unthinkable less than a decade ago is now fact: Kansas City is soccer cool personified.
“You look around the league and think of the top fan bases and best places to play,” says Zusi. “A couple of years ago, Kansas City wasn’t even on the radar. Now you can say they’re at the top of the league in both of those categories. It makes me appreciate it all that more because I saw what it was and what it is now.
“That’s not to say I didn’t feel that my first couple of years, because I did. I was doing what I love for a living and it’s doesn’t get much better than that. But, yeah, there’s now the benefit of playing in the best stadium in the league in front of the best fans.”
And with a chance to prove they are the best team.