KANSAS CITY, KAN. -- On a bright Saturday afternoon turned clear evening on the frigid Kansas plain, Sporting Kansas City, once the Kansas City Wizards, won the MLS Cup in front of more than 21,000. It was a celebration of the team, their new image and the fans who helped push them to the second title in franchise history and the first as one of Major League Soccer’s most stunning success stories.
Backed by their boisterous home crowd, Sporting jumped out to a fast start against the Western Conference champions. Sporting dominated the early going, and managed to hold on to their advantage in play despite losing starting midfielder Uri Rosell in the eighth minute to an ankle injury.
But for all Sporting's industry, chances were few and far between. Through a half, Sporting had only really threatened Nick Rimando once, requiring the keeper to dive acrobatically to his left on a headed effort by C.J. Sapong. The first 45 minutes were marked by an intense physical tone -- with the temperatures in the low 20s (and feeling colder thanks to a brisk wind that periodically snaked its way through Sporting Park), the soccer often came second to physical contact.
In the second half, Real Salt Lake made the home team pay for their waste.
Taking a simple chipped pass from Kyle Beckerman -- one that the USMNT midfielder hit no-look basketball-style -- at the top of the Sporting box, Alvaro Saborio finally kept Aurelien Collin at bay with an adept turn. His low shot beat Jimmy Nielsen to the near post, and the visitors went out in front.
Collin brought Sporting back to even terms with a headed goal from a corner with 12 minutes of regular time remaining. From there, the two clubs battled out another 42 minutes of scoreless soccer before deciding the champions of Major League Soccer on penalty kicks.
Here are three thoughts on the 18th MLS Cup
1. Physical tone
From the outset, Sporting were determined to play their aggressive style. For the opening half hour, the home team dominated the run of play while also pushing RSL around the park. Collin manhandled Saborio, Real Salt Lake's midfield felt pressure on every touch and, more often than not, players hit the turf in 50/50 battles.
Real Salt Lake responded in kind. The game devolved into a series of wrestling matches, many of them without a winner -- meaning referee Hilario Grajeda was happy to let the two teams grab and hold without blowing his whistle.
Collin hit the ground himself on multiple Sporting set pieces, either through RSL strategy or the rigors of tough play. Real Salt Lake surely wish he'd done so again in the 78th, when the French defender rose up to head home the equalizer. Matching SKC physically enabled RSL to get themselves back in the game and to an initial lead on Saborio’s 52nd minute goal.
All that contact made the game choppy, preventing RSL from putting their foot on the ball in their normal manner and breaking down Sporting. That might sound like something that would favor the home team, but as RSL has shown throughout the year, they don’t need to dictate the pace to remain competitive.
2. The conditions played a major role
Not only was Sporting Park a veritable icebox, low temperatures and snow earlier in the week scarred the field. Footing was treacherous, and players from both sides found simply running onto passes when backed up to a defender difficult. Combined with the physical nature of the play, the field conditions made stringing together more than a handful of passes almost impossible. It took a moment of brilliance from Saborio and a set piece from Collin to give the game goals and prompt the drama of extra time.
The temperatures impacted basic passing and shooting, though it’s somewhat surprising the two teams didn’t attempt more long shots given the difficulty for goalkeepers in holding onto a frozen sphere. Jimmy Nielsen hardly looked like himself, clearly affected by the cold in ways that made him slow to react to everything that came his way.
The later it got, the tougher it was for either side to hold possession in midfield; turnovers were a common occurrence into the extra period and directly led to chances for both teams.
3. Penalties were a fitting way to decide this year's champion
It just seems right that this year's MLS Cup came down to spot kicks. Not because penalties showed what either team can do, but because there was so little to separate the two teams through 120 minutes. In the end, it was the composure of Real Salt Lake and the reflexes of Jimmy Nielsen -- a shocking redemption story after his dodgy performance in regular play -- that determined the 2013 champion. Even the usual five penalties wasn't enough, with the teams doubling that number and going well down the list of penalty-takers.
Sudden-death penalties -- the smallest margin between victory and defeat possible in a championship game.
Neither team was able to play their game in regulation. The cold and the field conditions dictated more than coaches or game plans. The two teams cancelled each other out in ways that required a moment of individual dominance on both sides (Saborio on the turn, Collin in the air) to produce any scoring at all.
Sporting Park rocked from beginning to end on Saturday, a fitting backdrop for Major League Soccer's biggest game. Penalty kicks was a fitting way to crown a championship. When Lovell Palmer’s attempt -- in the 10th round of kicks -- hit the crossbar and ricocheted away from Jimmy Nielsen's goal line, Sporting won one of the most competitive, intense and dramatic MLS Cups of all time.