The conversion is complete. I’m officially a soccer fan.
It’s been a process that Sporting Kansas City has accelerated. I used to hate the sport. Every opportunity I had to ridicule it and its fans I would do so. But I’ve been a casual soccer fan for around six years now, and after Saturday’s MLS Cup win for Sporting Kansas City, I am no longer a casual fan.
A decade ago, that seemed like an impossibility. I loathed the sport. You couldn’t pay me to go to a Wizards game. In high school, a friend insisted that I turn on Worldsport and Fox Soccer Channel for English Premier League highlights every time he was at my house, because he didn’t have those channels at home.
I complained endlessly.
I’ve attended a handful of Sporting games since the rebrand and move to Sporting Park, and I watch the games on TV when I can. Saturday completed the transition.Sporting’s MLS Cup victory over Real Salt Lake after an agonizing 10 round penalty kick round, had me on the edge of my couch, my heart rate at unhealthy levels, and my six month old baby scared to tears.
Following Lawrence Olum’s poor shot in the 8th round of penalty kicks, when a make would have won the cup for Real Salt Lake, Jimmy Nielsen made a diving save to the left on Sebastian Velasquez, and my celebration was not met with a positive reaction from the baby. It’s not the first time I’ve scared my children during a sporting event, but in some sad way it proves to me that I’m legitimately a Sporting Kansas City fan now.
K-State basketball and football games? Royals games? Sure, I’ve been startling children during those for years. I tend to yell a lot, not the best personality trait to have, but my friends and family are used to it. My five year old son has become accustomed to it. The six month will learn in due time.
There was just something so anti-Kansas City about that game. We tend to be allergic to winning postseason games in this city, and as the second half progressed Saturday, the bullets kept flying at Sporting, and they kept dodging them. Real Salt Lake saw two sure goals hit the post and stay out of the goal, and had another goal disallowed by an offsides call.
When the penalty kicks started, an early save by Nielsen made it feel like a done deal. But nothing is easy in Kansas City. For nearly 30 years, our professional sports teams have been caught in a curse, a plague, or any other name you can come up with to describe mediocrity and bad luck. Kansas City native Matt Besler missed in the third round and when Graham Zusi stepped to the spot with a chance to end it, he sailed his shot over the cross bar.
At that point, I thought it was over. It felt like the ghosts of Kansas City past had tightened their grip on Sporting KC. But this franchise, a franchise that is defined by being from Kansas City couldn’t be stopped. That’s what was so enthralling about this game. It’s a Kansas City team, owned by Kansas City businessmen, with two key players from the metro. It’s a team this city should love, that follows a blueprint that we could only hope and dream the Royals would ever follow.
The local Ownership group is phenomenal. They’re everything that the Glass family isn’t, honest, accessible, and most importantly, winners.They know they’ll always be third in line to the Chiefs and the Royals in Kansas City. When they rebranded the team from the Wizards to Sporting Kansas City, a move that was widely panned in the metro, CEO Robb Heineman talked about winning championships, and backed it up with two trophies in the past 12 months.
Technical Director and Coach Peter Vermes has won a championship as a player in a Kansas City uniform and now as the coach. Two key players, Besler and Seth Sinovic are from Kansas City. This franchise as the the last two professional championships the city has seen.
Replacing it’s captain and face of the franchise in Nielsen, who announced his retirement at the teams celebration Monday night, won’t be easy. But there is a laundry list of guys to chose from. United States National Team members Besler and Zusi aren’t a bad place to start, not to mention Sinovic and MLS Cup MVP Aurelien Collin.
This is a proud sports city that hasn’t had much to be proud of for three decades. The challenge now for Vermes, Heineman and the rest of the ownership group, is to capitalize on this. Get more people like me, to convert. I don’t know all of the terms or many of the strategies of soccer, nor do I pretend to. But that didn’t stop me from buying in and scaring children along the way. If they can convert me, they can make almost anyone a fan. Some people will refuse it just to be difficult. I know several. They don’t know what they’re missing.
It has been a slow burn in this city for soccer, but that flame is white hot now. This is a city desperate for a winner. It finally has one.