Eight years ago, a group of local businessmen bought a lame-duck franchise with no permanent home, no noticeable buzz and no foundation for long-term success.
They played in an NFL stadium in front of sparse crowds. They were last in MLS in just about every conceivable revenue stream. On the field, they were mediocre at best. They had nowhere to go but up.
Of course, there’s nothing lame about Sporting KC now.
A sweeping rebrand, a $200 million stadium, a US Open Cup title, an MLS Cup triumph and 46 straight sellouts later – and that’s the abridged version – CEO Robb Heineman says his club is the greatest in MLS. He’s not particularly interested in hearing counterarguments, either.
“This club has the desire to be one of the greatest in the world,” Heineman said this weekend. “I think right now, we're the greatest in MLS. Frankly, I think there's no question that we're the greatest in MLS. And we're going to do everything that we can to try to continue to advance the vision of the club over time.”
That’s why US national team stars Matt Besler and Graham Zusi re-upped as Designated Players this weekend, eschewing options abroad. It’s why the SEC is taking cues from Sporting. It’s why Heineman says it’s Supporters’ Shield or bust for the defending MLS Cup champions after finishing one point short in 2013.
2nd half started well last week. Supporters shield is the goal. If u believe hop on board. If you support Seattle start 2 panic.— Robb Heineman (@RobbHeineman) July 6, 2014
Maybe Heinemann’s right. Maybe the massive mural in downtown Kansas City that went up last summer laying claim to the title of “Soccer Capital of America” wasn’t just marketing rhetoric. Maybe it’s more than bulletin-board material for the folks in Seattle, LA, Toronto and Portland.
Bluster, branding, brutal honesty or BS, depending on your perspective, I’m willing to cede Heineman the point – with one major caveat.
Sporting have to be accountable for that kind of hyperbole. Want to be the “greatest?” Then show the rest of MLS why they can’t hope to measure up.
Forget the Cinderella story. Forget the four-digit crowds. Forget the lean years. Kansas City are one of MLS’ big boys now, and the big boys aim higher than everyone else.
And that means more than a Supporters’ Shield. It means more than the US Open Cup. It even means more than back-to-back MLS Cups, though all that would be nice.
Being the greatest means aiming for history. In Sporting’s case, it means going all-in on the CONCACAF Champions League. It means settling for nothing short of winning their group, even if that group includes Saprissa and a visit to the Monster’s Cave, because that’s what it takes to avoid a second straight knockout-round embarrassment and make a run at the title.
That's what it will take to make history, as D.C. United did way back in 1998, stocking the trophy case with the Champions' Cup and Inter-American Cup to leave no doubt as to which was the greatest club in MLS. In doing so, D.C. cemented a legacy that has yet to be topped, one that didn’t just come with having some of the best fans in MLS, fielding legendary players or winning multiple MLS Cups.
It came with results. It came with international silverware. It's the reason why the LA Galaxy, Houston Dynamo, Seattle Sounders and, of course, Sporting KC are still left in United's wake.
The greatest club in MLS can’t take the easy way out when confronted by a clogged schedule and a trophy chase on multiple fronts. It can’t point to mitigating factors or explain away a four-goal loss in Mexico – a fate Sporting certainly aren't the first MLS club to grapple with.
Not when Kansas City are best equipped to carry the MLS banner all the way to the FIFA Club World Cup. Not when they’re carrying three Designated Players, two of which were standouts in Brazil, and boast one of the region’s best playmakers in Benny Feilhaber, a World Cup vet himself. Not when Sporting Park boasts a home-field advantage that rivals any in CONCACAF.
And certainly not when Heineman fires a shot across the bow of the rest of MLS.
No excuses, Sporting. If you’re the greatest, do something undeniably great. Do something no MLS club has done before.