In a Major League Soccer season that came down to the wire, it is only fitting that the MLS Cup final took penalties to declare the season’s champion.
Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake played to a 1-1 draw at Sporting Park, and homestanding SKC prevailed after 10 rounds of penalties to win 7-6 in the shootout. MLS Cup MVP Aurelien Colin converting the eventual winner.
The victory completes a tremendous turnaround in Kansas City, where just three years ago, the Wizards were playing at a minor league baseball stadium. Now in its third year at Sporting Park, the club has been rebranded and reborn.
“This is an incredible sports town. The fans have had their downs for many years but they keep supporting their teams. From our perspective, we’re happy to reward them for the support they have continued to show through thick and thin,” Head Coach Peter Vermes said. “It’s an exciting time for the city and an exciting time for Sporting.”
After a scoreless first half, Alvaro Saborio put RSL ahead on his 52nd minute goal, cracking a shot from just outside the box to stun SKC for a 1-0 lead.
Salt Lake nearly added to its lead, but shots from Kyle Beckerman and Javier Morales in the 62nd and 73rd minutes both found posts, leaving the door open for Kansas City to stage a comeback.
SKC did just that in the 76th minute when Colin rose above his defender to head in a ball from Graham Zusi to equalize the match at 1-1.
“Today was a very complicated game. We had a lot of opportunities and they did also. When we were one goal down, we kept our composure and tried even harder,” Colin said.
That’s how the score remained through the rest of regulation and overtime, sending the match to a shootout. Zusi had a chance to put the match away in the fifth round with Kansas City leading 3-2, but sailed his shot high. Morales evened it up on the next attempt, sending the shootout to sudden-death rounds. The two teams traded goals in the sixth, seventh and ninth rounds, with both sides missing in the eighth round. Then, after Colin converted his attempt, Lovel Palmer crashed his shot into the crossbar and out, giving Kansas City its second MLS Cup title.
“It’s hard to explain really. It’s an amazing feeling, it’s overwhelming,” said SKC defender and Kansas City native Matt Besler. “I’m a Kansas City guy and I’m proud that we get to bring the MLS Cup home back to Kansas City.”
In the other locker room, Real Salt Lake lamented its missed opportunities to claim a second MLS Cup title of its own.
“It’s bad. It’s real bad,” Head Coach Jason Kreis said of the mood in the locker room. “Not just to lose the game in the fashion we did, but that it’s the last game of the season and that there’s inevitable changes and that the team as it is won’t be the same next year. There will always be guys that leave and guys that come in.”
Like Kansas City, Salt Lake City underwent major changes in the club’s perception with the dawning of a new era in a new stadium. For RSL, it came with the MLS Cup title in 2009, also won on penalties.
“Since 2009, we've really gotten popular in Salt Lake City,” said goalkeeper Nick Rimando. “I think when you're doing well, fans loving a winning team and a team that's consistent. Salt Lake City embraced us in that way.”
Now, the attention of Major League Soccer turns to the offseason, starting with Stage 1 of the Re-Entry Draft on Thursday as teams begin the building process toward the 2014 season.
It is now less than 92 days away from MLS First Kick on March 8 and the MLS Cup champion will begin its defense of the title at CenturyLink Field as Sounders FC opens its sixth season.