KANSAS CITY, Kan. – This one was for all the kids waiting to be chosen in a pick-up game, who only wind up on a team because, well, someone's got to take them.
When Aurelien Collin stepped to the penalty spot, in the longest penalty shootout in MLS Cup history, it was as Sporting Kansas City's top scorer of the postseason. His three goals in the playoffs included a 76th-minute equalizer in Saturday's final against Real Salt Lake, forcing a 1-1 draw that lasted through regulation and extra time.
But that wasn't why he stood there. It wasn't because manager Peter Vermes believed in the big French centerback's ability to convert in the biggest match of the year, because Collin had never taken a penalty before. Ever.
But the shootout was in its 10th round, and Vermes had nobody left on whom to call.
“There was a moment when I did not feel my heart,” Collin recalled in Spanish in the postmatch news conference. “It was horrible, because I just wanted it to be over and for us to win.”
And then Collin buried his shot inside the post as Real Salt Lake's Nick Rimando dived in vain to try to knock it away. And when Lovel Palmer smacked his shot off the crossbar, Sporting had a 7-6 shootout win and its first MLS Cup in 13 years as Collin – the likeliest and unlikeliest of heroes – was named the Volkswagen MLS Cup MVP.
“That was an unbelievable PK,” Vermes said with a grin in the postmatch news conference. “He saves them for the good times.”
But if the MVP moment came in an unexpected way, his equalizing header off Graham Zusi's corner was the sort of thing people have come to expect over his three years in Kansas City. He made a late run, outdueling defender Chris Schuler and driving his header into the lower left corner.
“The second half was pretty hard for me because I had a small kick in the head,” Collin said during the news conference. “I couldn’t see that well, so that’s why I scored. I was very lucky that Zusi put the ball exactly where I wanted it. I put my head up and it went through, so I’m happy. I don’t know what I was thinking when I scored—I’m just happy I scored.”
Saturday's match was Collin's first Cup final for Sporting – he sat out last year's US Open Cup championship victory on yellow-card accumulation – and the culmination of a journey that began three seasons ago when he arrived in Kansas City as a European journeyman who'd had one club fold out from under him and wasn't getting paid by his current side.
If Collin couldn't feel his heart during the shootout, Vermes recalled a white-knuckle moment of his own when he and assistant Kerry Zavagnin went to watch the defender play for the first time.
“He was playing in Portugal, on the island of Madeira,” he said. “It was ranked, at one point, the worst airport in the world to land. And it wasn't good when Kerry and I went to land, believe me.”
Collin has proved worth the risk. He quickly won over Sporting's fans – and infuriated opponents – with his aggressive, flamboyant play on the field and his outsized personality. He has his own fashion line, two All-Star nods, a selection to the 2012 Best XI – and now, an MLS Cup title and MLS Cup MVP honors.
“For the first time in my life, I had the best facilities, the best environment, the best infrastructure,” he said. “I know I am a better player now than I was three years ago. I know that if I stay here, I will be a better player in three years than I am now. I wasn’t expecting all of this but I feel very blessed and happy to be a part of it.”
Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com.