KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Sporting Kansas City are one victory away from an unprecedented run of success, but good luck getting anyone to talk about what that would mean in the big picture of the club’s history.
Well, almost anyone.
A victory at the Philadelphia Union on Wednesday night in the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup final (6 pm CT, ESPN2, Univision Deportes Network) would give Sporting three trophies in four seasons – all under manager Peter Vermes – after they won the Open Cup in 2012 and MLS Cup in 2013.
By way of comparison, the then-Wizards won three titles – a Supporters’ Shield/MLS Cup double in 2000 and their first Open Cup in 2004 – over a five-year span that marks the club’s current best run on silverware.
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The official position is that beating Philadelphia for the Open Cup title is Sporting's sole aim right now, and that discussions about legacies are best left to others.
“I want to be careful not to talk about where we're at in comparison, because we don't really do that as players,” center back and captain Matt Besler told MLSsoccer.com after a recent training session. “I know that you guys love doing that, and you should. It is a good story. We want to win as many trophies as possible. If that means our class winning the most trophies in club history, then so be it.
“Our goal isn't to have the best legacy. Our goal is to win the most trophies. So it is on our mind.”
Vermes, who anchored that 2000 team in central defense and is the only man in league history to win an MLS Cup as a player and a coach with the same team, said the same thing in a conference call on Monday.
“Obviously, it would be an accomplishment,” Vermes said. “But I guess from our perspective, the only thing – we're not thinking of it that way. We're just thinking of it as the competition that's in front of us and the opportunity that's in front of us. Being able to win another US Open Cup would be fantastic for the team and the club and the fans, and so that's really our focus.”
But ask the one person who's been there to hoist every piece of silverware the club has won – either as the Wizards, or since their rebrand to Sporting in 2011 – and assistant coach Kerry Zavagnin, who played in Kansas City from 2000-2008, has plenty to say on what a victory on Wednesday would mean.
“It would probably be the best run that we've had as a franchise, I think,” Zavagnin told MLSsoccer.com last week. “When you put everything in the equation, the last five years in this organization have been really the golden era of Major League Soccer in Kansas City. It's been a tremendous amount of consistency to go along with championships.”
Sporting have made the playoffs every year since the rebrand, finishing atop the Eastern Conference regular season standings twice, and are in position to continue that postseason streak this year after expansion forced them into the West.
“There's obviously ebbs and flows every season and every year,” Zavagnin said, "but we've also come to expect a team that always competes for a championship, and we've been able to do that for the last number of years. We're right on the doorstep again of another one, and I would say it would be the best moment in the history of Kansas City soccer.”
The 2000-04 Wizards also made the postseason every year and reached the 2004 MLS Cup final, only to lose 3-2 to D.C. United. But the league has improved markedly since then, Zavagnin said, making the current club's string of successes even more impressive.
“It would be tough to put a percentage increase on it,” he said, “but every box that you look at in terms of where the league wanted to improve, we have – collectively as a league, as a team, as an organization, as a sport in this city. So the trend is going upwards, and in the last couple of years it's made a sharp turn in the upward direction. I think we've been at the forefront of a lot of the things that have been for the betterment of the game, and that's something we're proud of.”
Sporting's footprint in Kansas City is far bigger than it was back then, as well.
Zavagnin and his Wizards teammates routinely played in front of small crowds in cavernous Arrowhead Stadium, and fewer than 9,000 people were on hand when the Wizards won the 2004 Open Cup at home in a 1-0 golden-goal thriller over Chicago. This year, more than 19,000 showed up for a fourth-round Cup match at Sporting Park and at least 800 fans plan to make the trip to PPL Park for this year's final – on a weeknight.
“It's made a complete turnaround from where we were,” Zavagnin said. “I remember winning the MLS Cup in 2000, and we had our friends and family at the airport. The situation is totally different. The team has a totally different presence in the city. And from that perspective, I'm tremendously proud that we've been able to take part in that progression of the sport here in Kansas City.”
Besler, a Kansas City area native, has both seen and been a part of that progression – growing up as a Wizards fan and then joining the club in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft. And while he's not all that keen to discuss his own legacy or that of Sporting's current group of core players, he readily acknowledges wanting to add to his hometown side's list of titles.
“That's one of the main reasons why I've stayed in Kansas City,” he said. “There's many reasons, but the biggest reason is the chance of winning championships and bringing back trophies to Kansas City. That's what it's all about for me.”
Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com.