The stage was set Wednesday night at Livestrong Sporting Park for Sporting Kansas City's dramatic advance to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 2007. The rain was driving, the air was frigid, the soaked fans were huddled together and screaming, and the Colorado Rapids were determined to avoid being bounced out of the playoffs. Everything was ready for Sporting to put on another gut-wrenching thriller that mirrored the club's season.
But the stadium's defibrillators took the night off. A composed Sporting team collected a 2-0 win, vanquishing last season's MLS Cup champions.
The field was in surprisingly good shape, given the weather, but the play at the beginning was halting. Colorado appeared to be trying to get every foul possible, and referee Kevin Stout was accommodating, making consistent, fluid play a rare sight. That gave set pieces added importance, but Sporting came through. In the 28th minute, Graham Zusi landed a free kick from near midfield on defender Aurelien Collin's head, and the Frenchman managed to direct it past Colorado keeper Matt Pickens to give Sporting a 1-0 lead.
Facing a nearly insurmountable 3-0 aggregate deficit, the Rapids attempted to step up their scoring efforts, trying to beat Kansas City keeper and team MVP Jimmy Neilsen with close and long shots, but the White Puma was up to the task.
In the second half, Colorado's desperation shots continued, and Sporting's defense continually turned chances away. In the 76th minute, Sporting wrapped the game up. The catalyst was again Zusi, on a free kick in the Rapids' end. The midfielder launched the ball to CJ Sapong, who cemented his Rookie of the Year front-runner status by driving a header past Pickens, giving the 18,565 fans at Livestrong a reason to get rowdy in the rain. The win was the latest sign that this team is not the same outfit that started the season with a single win in the first 10 matches.
Following the game, Sporting manager Peter Vermes was downright jovial by his usual all-business standards, saying he was delighted that his players didn't take their foot off the gas after the first leg of the series. "You think that it’s going to be easy, and the other team comes for everything," he said. "They definitely achieved something, and I'm proud of them."
Sporting will face either the Houston Dynamo or the Philadelphia Union at home Sunday for a chance to win their first MLS Cup since 2000.
"Somebody pointed out to me the other day … when we won the Western Conference championship that there was, like, 4,500 people in the stands, back in 2000," Vermes said. The new bolstered fanbase, he added, is "one of the reasons we're sitting here today." (A team employee later clarified to the press that the attendance back then was actually around 8,000.)
Both teams spent a lot of time on the rain-soaked ground throughout the match, and Sporting picked up three yellow cards, continuing a season-long trend of physical play. After a streak of four shutouts, though, Vermes sounded content to stick with his tactics. "I’m not going to apologize for having a big, strong, fast, athletic team. That’s who we are. If teams can’t handle it, they can’t handle it," he said. Right now, it doesn't look like any team can.