We picked the nominees, you picked the winner. The Moment of the Year in MLS in 2013? Sporting Kansas City’s dramatic win over Real Salt Lake in the MLS Cup in both the coldest game on record – 20 degrees at kickoff at Sporting Park in Kansas City on Dec. 7 – and the longest playoff game of all time, reaching all the way to the 10th round of a penalty shootout.
Sporting Kansas City beat writer Steve Brisendine wrote about the match for our Stories of the Year countdown – SKC’s win came in at No. 4 – and we honor the moment again. The game drew 34 percent of the final vote, followed by Portland’s postseason win over Seattle (16 percent) and Clint Dempsey being introduced in Seattle (11 percent).
Maybe it was the mind-numbing cold, a chill so deep and penetrating that beer froze in the cup. Maybe it was the fact that the penalty stage had dragged out for 10 rounds, the longest shootout in MLS Cup history. Maybe, after more than a decade of postseason disappointment, it took a little time to realize that their hearts really weren't going to be broken.
When Lovel Palmer's last-ditch spot kick hit the crossbar, and then the pitch in front of the goal mouth, there was a moment of hesitation. Not for long – a couple of adrenalin-revved heartbeats, perhaps – but there it was.
Palmer knew right away. So did his Real Salt Lake teammates. But Jimmy Nielsen – Sporting Kansas City's veteran goalkeeper, playing in the last match of his career – lost track of the ball momentarily.
He spun around, saw it on the pitch, and raised his hands in celebration. That's when the beyond-capacity crowd – all but RSL's supporters, left to rue yet another missed opportunity – erupted in joy as Nielsen's teammates rushed in to mob him. Their club's and their city's title drought was over.
It ended in the late afternoon dark of Dec. 7, with Sporting winning Kansas City's first postseason title since the then-Wizards (with current manager Peter Vermes in central defense) took MLS Cup in 2000. And for those players who grew up in Kansas City, the victory was doubly sweet.
“It’s hard to explain, really,” said center back Matt Besler, who joined his hometown team out of Notre Dame in 2009. “It’s an amazing feeling, it’s overwhelming. There’s a lot of people that deserve a championship and I honestly feel like I’m part of the fans. I’m a Kansas City guy and I’m proud that we get to bring the MLS Cup home back to Kansas City.”
It wasn't an easy road, either. On their way to outlasting Salt Lake 7-6 on penalties following a 1-1 draw through regulation and extra time, Sporting had to come from behind against all three of their postseason appointments.
“I think we could make it easier on ourselves by scoring first, but I also think it shows that if we’re down, we’re never out,” midfielder Benny Feilhaber told reporters afterward. “I think it shows the kind of confidence that Peter’s instilled in us. He’s always said we have 90 minutes to do it, maybe 120 minutes and today maybe even more than 120 minutes.
"But we were able to get it done in the 10th penalty after 120 minutes. So don’t count us out until the game’s over, and I think that’s what we showed.”
- BEST OF 2013: Check out the Stories of the Year
The title, on the heels of Sporting's US Open Cup triumph in 2012 – also in a shootout in front of the Cauldron supporters section – capped a dramatic rise in the club's fortunes since rebranding and moving into Sporting Park in 2011.
When manager Peter Vermes took over on an interim basis in mid-2009 – the tag was taken off at the end of that season – the team then known as the Wizards played their home matches in CommunityAmerica Ballpark, a nearby minor-league baseball stadium. But the new ownership group had big plans. Not only would they create a state-of the-art venue for the team, but they'd make the club contenders for silverware each year.
“It’s incredible when you have owners that have such a connection to your team,” Vermes said. “It’s not just money – they’re involved in the community and all of these things. I’m extremely happy for them, our staff, and then the team. I can’t tell you how happy I am for the guys.”
Vermes, who in October was inducted into the U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame, knows what it's like to celebrate an MLS Cup victory as a player. He's only the second person to win both as a player and as a manager, and the first to do it with the same club.
His focus after the match, though, was on his players and their supporters.
“It’s such a special moment, and no one can take that away from you,” he said. “I know the trials and tribulations you go through as a player. These guys are committed and they love this club. And, of course, the final piece is the fans. The environment out there is just absolutely incredible. I want to thank them so much for their commitment out there in this weather.”
Then again, after a dozen years without a title, a few hours spent trying to keep feeling in their extremities didn't seem to bother the faithful. This was why they followed the team in droves after the move, why they packed Sporting Park in even the foulest conditions, why they chanted over and over, I believe that we will win!
And they did – even if it took a second or two for it to sink in.