While Kansas City sports fans were burying their heads in despair and disbelief over yet another losing season by the hometown Royals and a despicable start to the NFL season by the Chiefs, the city's professional soccer franchise was engaged in a season-long worst-to-first turnaround that has Sporting Kansas City on the brink of the Major League Soccer Championship.
Sporting started off the 2011 season with nine consecutive road matches while its beautiful new, soccer-only stadium, Livestrong Sporting Park, was being completed. The team's home-opener wasn't until June 9, which ended in a scoreless tie with the Chicago Fire. At that point in the season, Sporting Kansas City resided in dead last in the Eastern Conference of the MLS with a record of 1-6-3 through its first ten games.
Since that time, Sporting has been on a terror, boosted immeasurably by capacity home crowds of 18,000-plus in beautiful new surroundings. From June 9 to the end of the regular season at the end of October, Sporting refused to lose, winning or playing to a tie in 21 of its final 24 matches. And with 17 of those 24 games being played at Livestrong Sporting Park, the table couldn't have been set any better for Sporting to reverse its nightmarish start and ride the momentum wave right on through to the end of the season.
After disposing of the defending MLS champion Colorado Rapids this week in the opening round of the MLS playoffs (by duplicate scores of 2-0), Sporting now will face the Houston Dynamo, which finished the regular season two-points behind Sporting Kansas City in second place in the Eastern Conference. By virtue of being the Eastern Conference champion, Kansas City will host the one-game match with the Dynamo for the conference championship on Sunday (the time is not yet determined). The winner of that game will move on to play for the MLS Cup against the winner of the Western Conference final between the 2009 champions, Real Salt Lake, and the Los Angeles Galaxy. The Galaxy (19-5-10), which feature international soccer headliner David Beckham and Landon Donovan, a member of the U.S. World Cup team, had the best record of all 18 MLS teams this season.
Sporting Kansas City and Houston met twice this year in regular-season action. The two clubs tied 1-1 at Houston in mid-July, but Sporting won easily, 3-0, when they met in Kansas City in early September. Sporting also defeated the Dynamo 1-0 in Houston on April 6 in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. The Dynamo advanced to the conference championship game by outscoring the Philadelphia Union in their two-game playoff series.
Both teams are unbeaten in their last seven or eight games. Sporting Kansas City is 5-0-2 over that time, while Houston is 6-0-2.
Sporting's clinching playoff victory Wednesday night over Colorado at Livestrong Sporting Park was accomplished in a driving rain storm and chilly temperatures. The miserable weather conditions did little to slow down Kansas City's charge toward a second MLS championship, nor did it dampen the spirits of the capacity crowd that was on hand to witness Sporting Kansas City's advancement in the playoffs.
"I believe this is a huge step for our team," Sporting Kansas City head coach Peter Vermes said after the first-round playoff win over Colorado. "We know that we still have some work to do here. But for sure, we know that we've made a big step."
Commenting on the affect the home crowd has had on Sporting's midseason turnaround and run-up to the postseason, Vermes said: "Somebody pointed out to me the other day when we won the Western Conference championship that there were 4,500 people in the stands back in 2000 (the year the Wizards won Kansas City's first and only MLS championship). It's been like that all season at home (capacity crowds of 18,000-plus). They have been the 12th man of this team all season long, and that is one of the reasons we are sitting here today and have a chance at the Eastern Conference championship."
Should Sporting Kansas City get by Houston on Sunday, it will be the club's third appearance in the league final competing for the MLS Cup. Sporting won the championship in 2000, then playing as the Kansas City Wizards, and was the Cup runner-up in 2004, losing out to DC United.
The Royals are done for the year, but the Chiefs appear to be channeling Sporting Kansas City's season with four consecutive wins after getting pounded in each of their first three games. That's brought some spirit and visions of good times past back to the Kansas City sports community.
Hang on Kansas City. After Nov. 20, we may have another world championship to celebrate in a sport other than World Team Tennis.