Sporting Kansas City celebrates after winning the MLS Cup on December 7, 2013. (Photo: Jamila St. Ann)
KANSAS CITY, Kansas -- Sporting Kansas City was crowned champion of Major League Soccer on Saturday and just minutes after his team raised the MLS Cup, following a penalty shoot-out win over Real Salt Lake, Sporting president Robb Heineman set a new target – the CONCACAF Champions League title.
After the game finished 1-1 in regulation and neither side could add to the scoresheet in extra-time, Sporting ran out 7-6 winners in a tense and exciting shoot-out with their veteran goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen saving two spot-kicks.
When Salt Lake substitute Lovel Palmer blasted the decisive penalty against the crossbar to hand Kansas City victory, it prompted wild celebrations on the field and in the home stands, but it wasn’t long before thoughts turned to the next challenge.
“Robb Heineman came up to me right on the field after the game and said ‘Let’s go and win Champions League now’,” said Sporting head coach Peter Vermes, who become the first person to win MLS crowns with the same team as both a player and a coach. “I said, ‘Can you give me a day to enjoy this?’.”
Kansas City will face Mexico’s Cruz Azul in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals next year and Saturday’s win – at a freezing but packed Sporting Park – ensured qualification for the following edition of the confederation championship as well.
One thing Cruz Azul can be sure of when it travels to face Vermes’ team is that they will face a passionate crowd. Despite the bitter cold (20 degrees Fahrenheit at kick off, the coldest match in league history), a capacity 21,650 fans packed into the purpose built soccer stadium and their hardiness, plus noisy support, was rewarded with a pulsating game.
The hard surface and low temperatures meant the game was never going to be a classic display of fluent passing and movement, but it was a hard-fought battle that wasn’t decided until after extra-time and 20 penalty kicks.
After an edgy first half with few chances, Costa Rica international Alvaro Saborio opened the scoring in the 52nd minute with a confident, forceful finish after he was found by a superb pass from the influential Kyle Beckerman.
Midfielder Beckerman almost made it 2-0, ten minutes later, when he struck the post and RSL’s Argentine Javier Morales also hit the woodwork from outside the box later.
That misfortune cost Salt Lake in the 76th minute, as Sporting’s French defender Aurélien Collin powered in a header from a Graham Zusi cross, following a corner, to even the score.
Saborio had a header ruled out for offside, ten minutes into injury time, but with legs tiring, penalties proved to be the only way to decide the game.
After the marathon shoot-out, Collin, who had never taken a penalty before in his career, coolly slotted home to put the pressure on Palmer. Once again, the woodwork foiled Salt Lake, ending its hope of a second MLS Cup triumph following success in 2009.
RSL, the 2011 CONCACAF Champions League runner-up, can consider itself unfortunate to travel home empty-handed. Though it also lost the U.S. Open Cup final to D.C. United in October, head coach Jason Kreis believed the team had much of which to be proud.
"It's remarkable that this group has put themselves in so many positions to win things and, unfortunately, things, one thing or another, just haven't gone our way," he said. "It's easy to look at that in a negative way, but I don't think we should because I thought we played outstanding tonight. It wasn't like we came here to defend or bunker in. I'm really proud of this group and I think it's a fantastic team."
List of Champions
1996 – D.C. United
1997 – D.C. United
1998 – Chicago Fire
1999 – D.C. United
2000 – Kansas City Wizards
2001 – San Jose Earthquakes
2002 – LA Galaxy
2003 – San Jose Earthquakes
2004 – D.C. United
2005 – LA Galaxy
2006 – Houston Dynamo
2007 – Houston Dynamo
2008 – Columbus Crew
2009 – Real Salt Lake
2010 – Colorado Rapids
2011 – LA Galaxy
2012 – LA Galaxy
2013 – Sporting Kansas City