KANSAS CITY—Sporting Kansas City fought back from a goal down and then needed 10 rounds of penalty kicks before beating Real Salt Lake in a riveting MLS Cup final at Sporting Park on Saturday. SKC became the third straight team to host and win the MLS Cup final after the Los Angeles Galaxy triumphed in the past two seasons.
The win was also Sporting’s second MLS Cup title after their win in 2000 in which head coach Peter Vermes played for the victors.
The game’s MVP, SKC central defender Aurelien Collin neatly placed his team’s 10th penalty kick past the excellent Nick Rimando before RSL’s Lovel Palmer hit the crossbar with his penalty kick to seal Sporting’s win, sending the home fans into a frenzy with a 7–6 win on PKs after a 1–1 draw after 120 minutes.
“That was an unbelievable PK,” Vermes said in his postgame press conference. Apparently, Collin had never taken a penalty kick before.
Collin also scored SKC’s equalizer in the 76th minute with a header off a corner kick to stem the RSL tide. The visitors had taken the lead through Alvaro Saborio in the 52nd minute and seemed to be grabbing the initiative in the match increasingly.
The game started under sunny skies and a temperature of 20 degrees Fahrenheit. It began at a frenetic pace with hard tackles and a few injury stoppages. Referee Hilario Grajeda, voted MLS’s best this year, dealt three yellow cards by the end of the first half.
“The start was really hectic for both teams and I think that comes down the playing surface,” RSL coach Jason Kreis said in his postgame press conference.
It wasn’t exactly the “beautiful game,” but both sides showed determination and were not sitting back and playing coy. The rock hard field due to the cold prevented a silky passing game from taking shape and players needed to adapt to the conditions.
“The far side of the field was frozen the entire match,” Kreis said. He also said that the heating system under the field need “revising” in order to “make it better.”
Others echoed Kreis’ comments about South side of the field being frozen.
“It did affect us a little bit because players are slipping and falling over, but at the end, it affects both teams,” Sporting’s Paulo Nagamura said.
“It felt like you’re ice-skating,” said Matt Besler of SKC.
The second half was a better display. RSL took the lead after a brilliant no-look pass from Kyle Beckerman found Saborio. The big striker chested the ball down to his feet and fired a right-footer past Jimmy Nielsen in the SKC goal.
But SKC has made it a point of fighting back from adversity throughout their playoff run. They were down a goal to Houston in the second leg before coming back to win 2–1.
“We wear teams down. It’s just staying calm,” Besler said.
“Even if we were one goal down, we kept our composure,” Collin said. “We tried even harder to play ‘real’ soccer.” A criticism that has been made of SKC’s style is that it is physical and tends not to be the most attractive. But it is certainly effective.
After Collin’s equalizer, the two teams were unable to find a winner. Salt Lake hit the post twice, while Claudio Bieler fired a sitter high, and Graham Zusi’s chance from point-blank range in the first period of extra time was tipped over the bar phenomenally by Rimando.
Sporting took a quick 2–0 lead before missing two of their next three spot kicks, while RSL converted their next three. Into sudden-death penalty kicks, Sporting’s Lawrence Olum saw his weak effort miss the net. But Nielsen saved Sebastian Velasquez’s drive to prevent RSL from winning their second MLS Cup. They had won their first in 2009 via the penalty shootout over the Los Angeles Galaxy.
Chance Myers scored SKC’s ninth penalty, but RSL’s Nat Borchers matched him with a blast right down the middle.
And on the tenth penalty kick, Collin scored, but Palmer hit the crossbar.
Kreis felt that his team was in a no-lose situation with the MLS Cup final. “To lose on penalties, it’s difficult, hard to swallow, but I’m so proud of what the group has done all year.”
“It’s a remarkable statement about what this group of players has been able to do,” Kreis said. RSL reached the final of the U.S. Open Cup, but lost to D.C. United.
That fact was not lost on Vermes who said the feat was “not easy to do.”
With the MLS Cup win, Sporting Kansas City has now completed their transformation under new ownership. They won the U.S. Open Cup last year and hosted the MLS All-Star game earlier this year.
“This is definitely a big cherry on top for the moment,” Vermes said.
And for Collen, he felt very blessed and happy to be part of the victory.
“They showed me something I never had in Europe. For the first time in my life, I was in the best facilities, environment to become the best player I can be,” he said.
And like Collin who came from Europe, Nielsen said, “This trophy means a lot to me. I came here 4 years ago with the goal of being a champion. It’s a proud moment.”
The difference for SKC this year was experience, as Besler put it.
“It’s just experience. I wouldn’t say we were hungrier this year. It’s just learning how to manage the playoffs,” he said.
SKC earned the right to host MLS Cup by virtue of finishing two points ahead of RSL in the Supporters’ Shield standings (58–56).
Given the slightly quirky MLS regular season schedule, RSL and SKC met only once. That game on July 20 also featured a dramatic ending with Sporting’s Ike Opara heading home the 2–1 winner deep into stoppage time.
The MLS Cup final matchup featured two small-market clubs that have not relied on throwing around big bucks to bring in pricy international talent. These are two teams built from the ground up.
Sporting got to their first MLS Cup final since 2004 by exorcising the hoodoo that Houston Dynamo held over them. Meanwhile, RSL beat Portland in both legs to emphatically reach their first MLS Cup since winning it in 2009.
Two equally matched teams fought through 120 minutes on a rough, frozen pitch before going through 10 rounds of penalties. It will surely be an MLS Cup final that no one will forget.
Follow Rahul on Twitter @RV_ETSports