Matt Besler, Peter Vermes reflect on Sporting KC’s MLS Cup win

Saturday afternoon, Sporting KC defeated Real Salt Lake 1-1 (7-6) for their first MLS Cup since 2000. The game ended in penalty kicks, as the final field position player, Lovel Palmer, hit his penalty off the cross bar — one shot before the goalies would have lined up for their turn.

“It was incredible. There was 22,107 people in there [at Sporting KC’s home field, where the game was played], the largest crowd we’ve ever had,” head coach Peter Vermes told John Harkes and Jimmy Conrad on SiriusXM FC’s Counter Attack on Monday. “I remember a couple years ago when this rule change came — the two teams that were left, the one that had the most points in the regular season gets to host the final — I think it’s one of the best decisions that’s been made from a competitive perspective in the league in a long time. It’s amazing they didn’t do it from the very beginning.”

Both teams had their fair share of chances, but it was Sporting KC that dominated play. Sporting out-shot Real Salt Lake 24-12, including five shots on frame compared to two for Salt Lake. The home team also drew nine corner kicks; the visitors mustered just one.

Sporting KC central defender Matt Besler told Harkes and Conrad on Counter Attack that the extreme weather – it was the coldest MLS Cup final in history, with the wind chill in the single digits at the end of the game – led to a first half featuring 17 fouls committed by the two teams.

“The field was very slick, it was almost like an ice skating rink,” Besler said. “When you’re defending somebody, you really don’t have your footing. So sometimes, you grab a guy and make a professional foul and it’s probably the right play to make.”

The goal for Sporting KC was to put constant pressure on Salt Lake.

“We’ve been labeled as a very physical team all year long, but that’s never been our No. 1 game plan,” Besler said. “We’ve never gone into a game and said we want to try and foul the other team as much as we can and bully them. We don’t talk like that.”

“[Javier] Morales, [Robbie] Findley, Kyle Beckerman, and Luis Gil. Those guys are all incredible players when they have five-to-10 yards of space in front of them,” Besler continued. “We wanted to not allow them to have any space at all, so if that means taking a couple fouls here or there to get them out of their game and rhythm, then so be it.”

Sporting KC finished the regular season with the second-best record in Major League Soccer. Besler spoke about the turning point in the season, a team meeting in late August that followed back-to-back 1-0 losses to San Jose and Chicago.

We basically just said, ‘We’re either going to be a team that just is happy with getting into the playoffs, or we’re going to be a team that is going to go for the Supporters’ Shield. But we need to make the decision right now, because time’s running out.’ So right then, we kind of changed our mentality of not going into games just to play well or get a result, we started going into games with the thought that we’re going to win and we need to win.

The run to the Cup came as the club re-branded itself – including a name change and a soccer-specific stadium – all while staying in Kansas City.

“There’s the five owners that all live in Kansas City. They’re involved and ingrained in the community and charity events,” Vermes said. “The one thing that I’m extremely happy about is that for the kind of commitment that our ownership group has put into this team and this city, it’s great that they can be rewarded with this championship.”

Big changes have already struck the champs: Nielsen announced his retirement Tuesday, and key substitute Claudio Bieler will most likely seek a new home for a more prominent role. Still, with a core of USMNT stalwarts Graham Zusi and Besler, in addition to players like Benny Feilhaber and rising star C.J. Sapong, Vermes and Kansas City have every reason to believe they’ll be back in the MLS Cup picture in 2014.

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