KANSAS CITY, Mo. – In a way, all of this started on an August night in 2012 when Seattle's Eddie Johnson fired his spot kick into the Cauldron on the last exchange of a penalty shootout.
The US Open Cup belonged to Sporting Kansas City. The capacity home crowd exulted in the club's first silverware since 2004. Sporting booked a ticket to the 2013-14 CONCACAF Champions League – and they're still there, reaching next year's quarterfinal round after going through the group stage unbeaten.
But while they don't play down the impact of that victory and all they derived from it, Sporting are looking ahead, not back – ahead to Saturday's MLS Cup final and the chance to establish themselves as a team capable of winning championships every year.
“There's no doubt that it was an important event here,” manager Peter Vermes told MLSsoccer.com on Tuesday. “What I would say, though, is that it's an ambitious group and we have other things that we want to accomplish as a team. So as much as I think that it's good to have that experience and draw off of it, the other piece of it is that it's kind of behind us. No doubt that that was a catalyst to help us move forward, but at the same time the ambition is what's the main focus of the group.”
But as they prepare for Saturday's match against Real Salt Lake, Sporting's players acknowledge that they're still drawing on lessons learned from that shootout victory over the Sounders after regulation and extra time ended in a 1-1 draw.
Energized by the victory, Sporting made a run to the top of the Eastern Conference regular-season standings that season before being eliminated by Houston in the conference semifinal. They've continued to hold a high standard this year, contending for the Supporters Shield for much of the season before the New York Red Bulls surged to the top on the final weekend.
And with that team success has come more individual opportunity. Sporting had seven players go on international duty this year, and solid efforts with the US national team during World Cup qualifying have made center back Matt Besler and midfielder/winger Graham Zusi favorites to be in the squad for Brazil 2014.
“I think there's been lots of things that helped our experience level,” Zusi said. “I think the Open Cup was one of them. The CONCACAF Champions League stuff is another one, guys being able to play in qualifying matches. Any game that has high implications, short-term high implications, is a great learning experience. This team has had plenty of them in recent time, and more and more players are playing in big-time games.”
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The benefits of last year's Open Cup win can be felt away from the pitch, as well.
“I think a lot of it is to do with the buildup to the game, too,” goalkeeper and captain Jimmy Nielsen said. “It's a big game. There's a lot of stuff going on. Everybody wants a little piece of you, wants to chat with you. When you come to the game you can be exhausted, with everything that's going on around you.”
And with their eyes on a prize they haven't won since 2000, when Vermes anchored the then-Wizards' defense in a 1-0 victory over the Chicago Fire, Sporting are looking to minimize any distraction they can in a city that's hungry for a title in any sport.
“You have to be able to handle those as a team, as an organization,” Vermes said of the big-game pressures. “You can't get caught up in all the other things that are going on on the outside because you've worked so hard to get to this point and you don't want to let your concentration off for the thing that you worked so hard for.”
Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com.