By Ridge Mahoney
Both finalists were intensely deserving of lifting MLS Cup, so one can’t begrudge Sporting Kansas City its title.
Ten rounds of penalty kicks were needed for SKC to outlast Real Salt Lake, which had won its MLS Cup in 2009 on penalty kicks, 5-4, but this time fell short, 7-6, in a marathon. Shots off the goalpost, goals disallowed, hard tackles and near-misses doused in bitterly cold (20 degrees at kickoff) led to the cruelest showdown in sports.
RSL can bemoan its luck, having hit the woodwork twice in regulation and once more on the game’s final kick, when substitute Lovel Palmer smashed his shot against the crossbar to send most of the 21,650 fans into euphoria.
SKC put more threatening shots on frame but could beat keeper Nick Rimando only once, when defender Aurelien Collin -- named the MSL Cup MVP -- overpowered RSL counterpart Chris Schuler to head home a Graham Zusi corner kick. Collin also converted the decisive -- and unstoppable -- penalty kick in a shootout that seesawed back and forth during which both teams rallied only to fail on a kick that would have won it.
The commitment of money and resources poured into the team by OnGoal LLC since it bought the club from Hunt Sports Group in 2006 is well-known in soccer circles, yet the group led by Cliff Illigand Neal Patterson has turned a rebranding -- of the team formerly known as the Kansas City Wiz and then the Wizards -- that was scorned by some into a rabid following. SKC is part of the city’s sports culture, not some offshoot backed into a dark corner.
“They completely changed the way this team and this city thinks about themselves,” said ESPN analyst Alexi Lalas, whose own resume includes a Kansas City entry, during the postgame show. He got that one exactly right.
In the short term, MLS has its fifth different champion in the past six seasons, since Columbus broke Houston’s two-year run in 2008. RSL was also provided the opportunity for its second MLS title when it knocked off the Portland Timbers in the Western Conference finals but fed by most of a boisterous crowd of 21,650, SKC conjured up just enough to scrape through.
(Kudos to the RSL fans who made the trip; they filled most of a section and could be heard during those brief periods when the SKC supporters needed time to re-inflate their lungs and re-warm their cold bodies.)
For the long term, MLS has yet another franchise it can point to and say, "This is how you do it."
Former RSL owner Dave Checketts, in five seasons, turned RSL from an expansion struggler into a championship team that plays in an ideal facility and is adored by a loud, loyal fan base.
Now SKC has joined the ranks of flagship franchises to which potential applicants, not to mention a few current stragglers, must aspire.