Sporting Kansas City Brings It All Back Home

Home is a practicality in the world of sports. An advantage. A better option than playing away. But when Sporting Kansas City’s players talk about home, about Children’s Mercy Park and the fans that make it bounce and sing, you get the sense it means a little more than that.

“I don’t even have the words to express what it means to me to win a trophy with this atmosphere and these amazing fans,” said Tim Melia, SKC’s outstanding goalkeeper who conceded just two goals in five games of the 2017 U.S. Open Cup. He forced back tears amid a swirl of blue confetti and that warm feeling of being with people who care about the same things you do. “The feeling is something I want to feel every night of my life. The closeness of the fans and the players here, and what they do for us, it’s just amazing. They’re so much a part of us.”

You can’t blame Melia for getting emotional. Home is a heavy notion. It matters, maybe more than anything. And he had a hard road to the rarefied air of Cup Finals and being ranked among the top goalkeepers in Major League Soccer. It wasn’t too many years ago that he didn’t have a club, that he was willing to entertain whatever offers came his way. But at Children’s Mercy Park on the night he and SKC beat the Red Bulls 2-1 to win a fourth Open Cup, he got a standing ovation just for coming out to warm up.

Home Brings Out the Best
“When you feel like you’re at home, it helps you to play just that bit better,” said Benny Feilhaber when asked what Kansas City means to him. It wasn’t long ago that this silky playmaker was being passed over following a loss of form and injuries that took a toll on his confidence. He found a home in Kansas City when he wasn’t in demand the same way he was early in his career, when he was the next big thing. And he set up the second goal of the Open Cup Final – the winning goal. “When you’re happy and you feel like you’re in the right place, it can really make a difference.”  

“We have something they don’t have,” said Graham Zusi, the team’s clever winger, on the eve of the Final. “We’re at home, in front of our fans, and you can believe that that makes a difference.” One the loudest noises on the night of the Final came when Zusi’s inch-perfect cross from the right picked out Latif Blessing, who headed home to open the scoring. Coach Peter Vermes put it all in practical terms before the game: We get to sleep in our own beds and eat at our own tables,” he said in his understated way, inadvertently hitting on those small familiarities that make a real home. “We can drive our own cars to the stadium before the game too.”

When Ike Opara, the team’s battling defender, talks about playing at home he pauses and makes sure he gets his words right. But even then, words don’t do it justice. “It’s impossible to say just how much these fans and this stadium bring to us as a team. Whatever I say it won’t be enough.”

Daniel Salloi, scorer of ultimately the winning goal, revs up the crowd at Children's Mercy Park. 

Opara nearly quit the game when injuries mounted one after the other and a ruptured achilles tendon seemed like too much to bear. But he soldiered on and the fans never forgot him. He’s a favorite. He’s adored at Children’s Mercy Park. And few get a bigger roar when their name’s announced over the PA system. When he was knocked out cold in an epic Quarterfinal with FC Dallas in July, his thumbs-up to the crowd from a stretcher was met with booming exhale of mass relief. And a punctured eardrum didn’t keep him from playing in the Semifinal, or from being immense on SKC’s backline in the Final.

There’s no magic to a good home. It’s not supernatural. You need to care. You need to feel like you’re in it together. You need to know when someone else in that home is in need of a little help or a little extra love. “When we’re down and not playing our best, we know we can come home and these fans will be right behind us,” said Feilhaber. “They never let us down and it’s something we can rely on and count on.”

Tough Love and a Loss
Roger Espinoza is a man of toughness and grit. He’s combative. He fights hardest when the chips are down. He was the hero in the game against Dallas when a hero was really needed. The club had lost one of its owners in the week leading up to that game. Neal Patterson wasn’t just an executive; he was a member of the Sporting Kansas City family. “We wanted to win it for him, and for the fans who backed us so hard, for everyone who’s been with us,” said Espinoza. When the final whistle went on Wednesday’s Final, the first thing captain and homegrown defender Matt Besler did was dedicate the win to the late Neal Patterson, the one they lost along the way.

“It was electric here tonight from an hour before the game all the way through to the end,” said Melia, the goalkeeper who found a home and success there in that stadium. “And we needed it because I don’t think a team’s come through and pinned us back like the Red Bulls did tonight. We really needed everything they could give. We really needed it tonight.”

There’s a lot to savor about Sporting Kansas City’s 2017 Cup run. There’s the 12 goals they scored. There’s the dramatic Quarterfinal win against the defending champions. There’s the brand of soccer they played that was worthy of a trophy. But one enduring image will remain when the confetti’s all vacuumed up and the echoes of victory have quieted: A team in light blue, arms locked, standing in front of a grateful crowd. At home.