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Sublime season ends quickly for Sporting KC

KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) - Sporting Kansas City won the U.S. Open Cup, led the Eastern Conference from start to finish, and perhaps most importantly this season, energized an entire city that had grown accustomed to failure.

Next season, the MLS club will try to take the next step.

Sporting KC was eliminated 2-1 on aggregate in the Eastern Conference semifinals by the Houston Dynamo, the same club that kept them out of the MLS Cup finals a year ago.

Despite dominating the return leg in the two-game series on Wednesday night, Sporting KC was only able to scratch out a 1-0 victory, not enough to send the team into the offseason.

``We're disappointed, and we should be, because we have the potential to be one of the two teams in the MLS Cup,'' said Jimmy Nielsen, whose exemplary play in goal made him a folk hero this summer. ``We had a great season, won our division. Unfortunately, Houston again.''

The fact that Sporting KC dominated the field Wednesday night was at least an appropriate way to finish off the season. The club rattled off seven straight victories to start the season and never wavered while maintaining the Eastern Conference lead into November.

Along the way, the club qualified for the CONCACAF Champions League by winning the U.S. Open Cup, defeating three-time defending champion Seattle in a riveting final.

It was played before a packed house at Livestrong Sporting Park, arguably one of the best stadiums in domestic soccer, and Sporting KC won 3-2 on penalty kicks to secure the trophy.

``We stayed atop the division for the whole entire season. We won the U.S. Open Cup. We did it,'' Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said. ``We did very well. We have a very good team.''

More importantly, a good young team.

Graham Zusi emerged as potentially one of the linchpins of the U.S. national team in future years, helping the Americans matriculate through World Cup qualifying. Kei Kamara showed prowess for finding the back of the net, and Matt Besler earned stripes as a shutdown defender.

Most of those pieces are expected to remain with the club, allowing players to grow together and continue the success.

``We have a great age group in this team,'' Nielsen said. ``The future for this team looks absolutely fantastic, and that should be a big motivation for us.''

So should falling short in the playoffs once again.

Sporting KC won its second straight regular-season Eastern Conference title, only to come up short in its first playoff series. But along the way, the club packed its glittering year-old stadium with the kind of passionate soccer fans that the MLS is hoping to attract to franchises across the country. It gave the city a reason to cheer for the first time in years.

The Royals haven't made the playoffs since winning the 1985 World Series and finished below .500 yet again. The Chiefs are off to a 1-7 start in another lost season and still have not won a playoff game since 1993, the same year that Major League Soccer was founded.

Jerseys, scarves and all manner of garb appeared in sporting goods stores all over the city, often flying off shelves faster than merchandise for baseball and the NFL.

``We performed really well throughout the season,'' Kamara said. ``It's good for the city of Kansas City. We've done really well. We just wish we would have pushed it all the way.''

The club could use another precision goal-scorer to help finish off the numerous chances that were wasted this season. It also needs improved depth to sustain the rigors of a longer, more difficult and more grueling campaign with the addition of Champions League games.

That work had already begun by Thursday afternoon.

``We're going to look at it and say there were some really good things, but we fell short of all of our goals,'' Vermes said. ``We feel that we're a very competitive team, and to get to the MLS Cup final, that was our goal. We fell short of that one. But again, I don't leave going, `Oh, what are going to do? We can't play.' It's not that at all. I feel very confident in the team we have.''

Copyright 2018 by STATS LLC and Associated Press.
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