KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The first two years of Sporting Kansas City's surge in popularity, after years of having stepchild status in playing other teams’ stadiums, came with the city's two other major sports franchises mired in mediocrity or worse.
The same can't be said this year, with Major League Baseball's Royals coming off a rare winning season and the NFL's Chiefs surging from last season's 2-14 debacle to a 9-0 start before last weekend's 27-17 setback in Denver. But Sporting's passionate support has only continued to grow as they aim for their first MLS Cup final berth since 2004.
Sporting Park is sold out to fire-code capacity for Saturday's Eastern Conference Championship against Houston (7:30 pm ET; NBCSN, Univision Deportes, TSN2/RDS2 in Canada) – and if Sporting come out on top in that match, their home ground will be jammed again on Dec. 7 for the Cup final.
That's especially gratifying to manager Peter Vermes, who remembers the days when the then-Wizards, even in the most successful season in club history, struggled to draw fans to cavernous Arrowhead Stadium, the home of the Chiefs.
“I think it's great that the Chiefs are finding success,” Vermes told MLSsoccer.com on Tuesday. “I think it's great for the city. But the other thing is that, in the midst of all that, we've found our niche and our fan base is there. It says a lot about the organization. It says a lot about the team. It says a lot about the fan base.”
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Vermes was a member of the 2000 team that won Kansas City's only MLS Cup – in a year where the Chiefs finished 7-9 and failed to make the playoffs. But the NFL team still consistently drew a capacity crowd to Arrowhead, while the Wizards' dramatic overtime win against LA in the Cup semifinals came in front of only 8,320 fans.
Sporting routinely draw more than twice that number for regular-season matches in Sporting Park, which opened in 2011 – the same year the club rebranded and began to take the city by storm.
“We have our own place now that we call home,” Vermes said. “The fans have a place we're not leasing or renting from anyone else, where we're the stepchild there.”
But a shiny new stadium only goes so far in gaining and keeping fan support. Despite stumbling against the Dynamo in the playoffs in 2011 and last year, Sporting have been among the league's strongest teams and won the 2012 US Open Cup since moving into their new digs.
And with a win on Saturday, they would deliver something Kansas City hasn't had since the Royals won the 1985 World Series – a chance to win it all at home.
“It's awesome,” said left back Seth Sinovic, who grew up in nearby Overland Park, Kan. “If you'd told me at the beginning of the year that we'd have two games at home to win the championship, I'd take it. Hopefully, we get that opportunity with a victory on Saturday.”
Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com.