Collin seizes spotlight with MLS Cup MVP performance

A master of showmanship, the Sporting Kansas City center back capped his dominant playoffs with the equalizing goal and winning penalty kick against Real Salt Lake.
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Aurelien Collin knew he was the man of the hour. Relished it, naturally. Arriving fashionably late to the MLS Cup postgame press conference, the jubilant Frenchman posed for the supporters peering in from beyond a glass barrier and thrust his hands above his head.

Collin's showmanship is a part of his polarizing persona. He's an imposing defensive presence who easily led MLS in yellow cards. Should he be considered physical or dirty? Intuitive or reckless?

But there's no debate that Sporting Kansas City is thrilled to have him. In Sporting's shootout win over Real Salt Lake on Saturday, it was Collin who took home MLS Cup MVP honors after nodding home the 76th-minute equalizer before converting what turned out to be the winning penalty kick.

"You can tell he's been locked in," Kansas City playmaker Graham Zusi said. "I really can't say enough about his performances throughout the playoffs — not just this one game. He has scored key goals for us, absolutely massive goals for us. And defensively he did what he always does. He's a tough guy to play against."

When it comes to scoring, Collin is nothing if not consistent. With three goals each of the past three seasons, the center back has averaged one tally every nine games.

In the 2013 playoffs, however, Collin found the back of the net three times in just five matches. After putting Kansas City on his back with a goal in each leg of the Eastern Conference semifinal against New England, Collin gave his side life Saturday when Salt Lake was 14 minutes from lifting the MLS Cup at Sporting Park.

"If the stats don't speak for themselves, then I'll tell you he's been huge," midfielder Benny Feilhaber said. "He's been an absolute beast back there. It was nothing different tonight."

Tangled up with the 6-foot-4 Chris Schuler, as he was on set pieces throughout the game, the 6-2 Collin rose to connect with Zusi's corner kick a split-second before his marker did, allowing him to steer his header inside the far post.

"The second half was pretty hard for me because I had a small kick in the head. I couldn't see that well, so that's why I scored," Collin said with a laugh. "I was very lucky that Zusi put the ball exactly where I wanted it."

When extra time ended with the match at 1-1, Collin's role figured to be over. Known within the Kansas City locker room as a notoriously poor penalty kick taker, he was 10th on Sporting's pecking order.

Then five penalty kicks couldn't break the deadlock. Neither could six, nor seven nor eight nor nine. Stepping up to the spot in the 10th round, Collin curled his shot perfectly into Nick Rimando's left side netting. Lovel Palmer then rang the crossbar for Salt Lake moments later, sealing RSL's fate.

It turns out that was the first penalty kick of Collin's seven-year career. And as he put it, "Hopefully it's the last."

"That was the best penalty he's hit since he's been with us, in training or anywhere else," coach Peter Vermes said. "That was an unbelievable PK. He saves them for a good time."

Defensively, Collin wasn't without his faults. He earned a first-half yellow card for a sloppy foul on Robbie Findley, then gave the ball away and left room for Alvaro Saborio to expose on the opening goal.

Yet the good outweighed the bad. In a game that saw no other player compile more than four interceptions, Collin racked up seven.

"He was in the zone tonight," said Matt Besler, Collin's center back partner. "He was feeling it."

For Collin, the match was the culmination of three impressive years anchoring the Sporting back line. After bouncing around less-than-glorious clubs in Scotland, Wales, Greece and Portugal, the colorful character has found his ideal fit in Kansas City.

The unit of Collin, Besler, Chance Myers, Seth Sinovic and goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen had already been the top defense in MLS each of the past two years. Now that Collin and his cohorts have an MLS title to show for their camaraderie, the 27-year-old's already-brimming confidence has grown all the stronger.

"They showed me something I never had in Europe," Collin said. "For the first time in my life, I had the best facilities, the best environment, the best infrastructure. I know I am a better player now than I was three years ago. I know that if I stay here, I will be a better player in three years from today."