KANSAS CITY, Kan. – C.J. Sapong opened Sporting Kansas City's 2012 campaign with a late game-winner and closed it out the same way, the first and last goals of the regular season.
That didn't matter as much to Sporting Kansas City's young center forward, though, as the fact that his club has finished atop the Eastern Conference for a second straight year.
“The regular season's done,” Sapong said on Wednesday night, after his 82nd-minute goal lifted Sporting Kansas City to a 2-1 victory over the Philadelphia Union. “There's a totally new season coming up.”
Sapong's first goal of the year came in a 1-0 First Kick win at D.C. United. His ninth ensured that Sporting wouldn't enter the postseason on three straight draws, even though a single point against the Union would have been enough to clinch the top spot in the East.
“The way we've been playing all season, it wouldn't be fair to us to finish off just saying, 'Be happy to just go out with a point,'” said forward Kei Kamara, who assisted on Sapong's goal and Jacob Peterson's 40th-minute score. “This is a team we knew we could dominate, and we're at home. We weren't going to go out there and just go with the flow of the game and just settle for a tie. No.”
That approach reflects Sporting's overall culture, manager Peter Vermes said in his postmatch news conference – a culture that has paid off in back-to-back first-place conference finishes for the first time in the club's 17-year history.
“It's a great effort by the boys to do this two years in a row,” he said. “It's not easy. It's consistency from the players. As I told them, it's a standard of excellence that they have set. To do that, though, you've got to continue to do that in big games. Tonight, this was a big game. Everyone's watching to see what the result is, and at the end of the day, it's over. They're just fighting for their spots. None of them can overtake us.”
And while Sapong might not have been thinking back to that season opener in D.C., Vermes was.
“I told the guys we'd love to make it sort of like bookends,” Vermes said. “Win the first game of the season and make sure we win the last game of the season, to make sure we go into the playoffs with that mentality.”
Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com.