Eleven years on from their first and only title, Sporting Kansas City will be vying for glory once again in Sunday’s Eastern Conference final at home against Houston Dynamo. In anticipation, FIFA.com spoke with Sporting centre-back and defensive leader Aurelien Collin about his side’s strengths.
After their superb end to the regular season, Kansas City built further momentum last week by eliminating reigning MLS champions Colorado Rapids 4-0 on aggregate in their Eastern Conference semi-final. Their mission now will be to defeat Houston and book a place at the prestigious MLS Cup final in Los Angeles on 20 November, and French stopper Collin feels they have the squad to do it.
“We’ve got a perfect balance between the extravagance of youth and the experience of our senior players like Julio Cesar and Omar Bravo,” said Collin, who joined the club in April. “We’ve got enthusiasm and maturity at the heart of a really united squad.” That unity was largely forged during the rigours of a long 34-match regular season in which Peter Vermes’ men pipped Houston to the Eastern Conference title by just two points, a triumph which also earned them home advantage for Sunday’s hugely important meeting with the same side.
"Like the coach has said, our supporters are our 12th man,” added Collin, a fan favourite at Kansas City’s ultra-modern Livestrong Sporting Park, which opened its doors on 9 June. “The infrastructure here is incredible, whether we’re talking about the stadium or the training pitches. We have everything we need to improve from day to day.” The 25-year-old has played his own part in helping the team improve too, having emerged as the orchestrator at the back Vermes had been looking for. “The club needed a leader and a warrior in defence,” Collin explained. “I’ll fight to the end for victory; that’s part of who I am. For the first time in my career, I’ve been entrusted with leading a defence, whereas in Europe I was always considered a youngster.”
The team formerly known as the Wizards certainly seemed to feel the benefits and finished the regular season with the second most miserly rearguard in their conference, their strength at the back being largely based on pragmatism and physical power. “When I arrived, we were still trying to find our feet,” said Collin. “At the start, the coach asked us to press all over the pitch, but the defence had trouble maintaining its line. So we learnt to play deeper and wait for our opponents before imposing our play when we got the ball back. We don’t go out of our way to press teams, and we developed that tactical maturity over a number of matches.”
Ready for action
"The physio has done a great job with us physically because our legs still feel ready, even after a very long season,” explained the Frenchman, who last represented Portuguese outfit Vitoria Setubal in Europe before crossing the Atlantic. “We’ve scored a lot of goals in the last quarter of an hour, which is a sign that physically we’re in really good shape. Other teams are more tired and you can see that. That's less of a problem for us and when you add in the confidence and unity in our squad, that’s three things playing in our favour.”
Beaten 4-1 by Los Angeles Galaxy at the Home Depot Center towards the start of the season, Sporting could well come up against the same side in the MLS Cup final should they dispatch Houston on Sunday. That would mean “being without our fans”, according to Collin, but he feels confident the club can add to the sole national title they won in 2000. “Our motivation would be huge for the final, so even if they [Galaxy] end up playing at home, I don’t think it would have a big impact on the result.”
The whole of Kansas is certainly hoping he is right and football has caught the public’s imagination thanks to Sporting’s successes so far. “After we qualified for the conference final, we were on the front page of the city’s biggest newspaper,” recalled Collin with pride. He and his team-mates now hope to lift that local fervour to unprecedented levels.