KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) — One of the participants in the MLS championship game went through a long-term rebuilding project under new ownership, complete with a rebranding of the organization, construction of a $200 million stadium and the revitalization of soccer in the surrounding community.
The other participant went through a rebuilding project that took about a month.
Sporting Kansas City, which languished as the Wizards for years, will be playing for its second MLS Cup at glitzy Sporting Park on Saturday when it faces Real Salt Lake, a club that jettisoned a bunch of proven veterans in the offseason in a push to go younger.
It's the first time that Kansas City, once a soccer wasteland and now a hotbed for the sport, has hosted the league's title game. When the Wizards won their only championship in 2000, the finale was played at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C.
"We've made such a turnaround in all aspects of the club," said Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes, who played on that 2000 team. "So much of it has to do with the ownership group and the vision and commitment, and not just their commitment from the financial aspect but also from their participation within the community. That's been a major impact on our team."
Tickets for the MLS Cup were snapped up in a matter of minutes, which is hardly surprising. The club sold out every game this season, turning Sporting Park into a must-visit destination.
It helps that the club has only experienced success since 2006, when it was purchased by a six-man ownership group headed by Cerner Corp. co-founders Neal Patterson and Cliff Illig.
After a few moribund seasons playing in cavernous Arrowhead Stadium, and then a minor league baseball park, the club finally caught fire with its 2011 rebranding. New logo, new colors, brand new name, one that fit the mold of European soccer clubs. Sporting KC finished first in the Eastern Conference in 2011 and 2012, and last year won the U.S. Open Cup for the second time.
The one thing it hasn't done is win the MLS Cup.
Frustrated the past couple years by Houston, Sporting KC finally broke through against its nemesis this season. A dramatic victory in the second leg of the semifinal at raucous Sporting Park sent the club on to Saturday's championship game.
"This is huge for the city," said forward Dom Dwyer, who scored the deciding goal against the Dynamo. "I've only been here two years, but I've seen this grow. There's more and more hype, and there's more and more attention. You start to get noticed when you're out and around the city, and a lot of people are talking about it.