When Sporting Kansas City rebranded its franchise more than six years ago, its management built a marketing campaign around a state-of-the-art venue and a fresh start. Peter Vermes was part of those meetings, an important voice in the room, but in a more private setting, he pinpointed a supplemental plan of his own.
Championships. They were the true essence to the sustainability of a franchise. The competition was less relevant than the concept of a title itself. So in the U.S. Open Cup, a tournament many teams use merely for prospect progression, Sporting KC treated it as a priority. As an opportunity. As the backbone for a long-term future.
By little coincidence, here they stand.
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Champions once more.
Sporting Kansas City defeated the New York Red Bulls 2-1 on Wednesday to win the fourth U.S. Open Cup championship in franchise history, including the third in the last six seasons.
“It’s what we do,” Sporting KC captain Matt Besler said.
Added defender Ike Opara, after an on-field trophy presentation at Children’s Mercy Park: “No player in the world doesn’t enjoy winning championships — I don’t care what they might say. We all want to win. And when you get moments like this right here, you really appreciate it.”
Half an hour after the match, the players stood in the locker room, each of them with a bottle of Cook’s champagne in their hands.
As Vermes walked in, his blue suit soaked from a water-cooler dunking, they demanded a speech.
“This club,” he said, his voice still hoarse from the match. “is all about winning championships.”
Vermes has won four finals in his Sporting KC tenure as the coach and technical director. He’s yet to lose one. No MLS club has won more U.S. Open Cup championships than Sporting Kansas City’s four.
But it was a pair of newcomers to the tournament who contributed the goals.
Almost too cliche for accuracy, Latif Blessing — the smallest man on the field — tallied the game’s biggest goal, opening the scoring in the 25th minute to set the tone for the match. Daniel Salloi doubled the lead after halftime. Red Bulls striker Bradley Wright-Phillips pulled one back in the 91st minute. But that was the only ball to skirt past Tim Melia, who made six saves, winning his second Open Cup as the team’s starting goalkeeper.
It was a first for others.
When Blessing arrived from Ghana in the offseason, he knew little of the U.S. Open Cup. After the rundown from coaches and teammates, he stated, “I’m here for the Cup. I came from Ghana to win Cups for Kansas City.”
Two months later, in front of a sold-out, vibrant Children’s Mercy Park crowd of 21,523, the third largest attendance figure in stadium history, Blessing provided the most important goal of his brief MLS career. Blessing, all 5-feet-5 of him, outjumped the New York Red Bulls’ back line and headed home a beauty of a pass from defender Graham Zusi.
“He won a battle that not a lot of people thought he would,” Zusi said.
The play encapsulated the essence of each — Blessing’s determination and Zusi’s creativity, the latter of which has increasingly played a factor in his first season as a right back progresses. Zusi acknowledged feeling a lull in the middle of the summer, but he believes he has cleared that with five weeks left in the MLS season.
Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch said part of the game plan was to prevent Zusi from being able to cross the ball.
“There are no consultation prizes in finals,” Marsch said. “But I feel like our team played great.”
After the Red Bulls tested Melia in search of a second-half equalizer, Sporting KC instead increased its advantage on the counter. Salloi made an instinctual run toward goal, and midfielder Benny Feilhaber picked him out. Salloi went on to beat goalkeeper Ryan Meara, who had greeted him at the edge of the penalty box but failed to make contact with the ball.
That was a welcomed cushion, especially after Wright-Phillips finally broke through a minute into second-half stoppage time.
Even so, Sporting KC negated the need for penalty kicks in a final after its previous three championship matches all required them — the 2015 Open Cup, 2013 MLS Cup and 2012 Open Cup.
This year’s version of the Open Cup bracket commenced in May with 99 teams.
But the journey for Sporting KC can be traced back to that philosophy from Vermes years earlier. Besler recalled receiving the message shortly his arrival as a rookie. In a few short months in 2017, it trickled down to the club’s newcomers. Blessing spoke of the tournament often, as did fellow newcomers Ilie Sanchez and Gerso Fernandes. They were all in the starting lineup Wednesday, though Blessing (knee) and Fernandes (shoulder) departed early.
“I would never think of it any other way,” Vermes said of the event. “We’re going to take them seriously.”
To reach the final, Sporting KC blew past Minnesota and Houston in the initial two rounds. It outlasted FC Dallas in overtime of the quarterfinal — despite playing a man down for an hour and a half — days after the death of co-owner Neal Patterson, a victory Vermes called one of the most important in team history. One round later, his club relied on penalty kicks to advance past San Jose in the semifinals. A blind draw placed Sporting KC at home for the final two matches.
It undoubtedly made for a more enjoyable celebration than the last one, a 2015 Open Cup title in Philadelphia.
But the most exhilarating postgame moments still came in the locker room, tucked away from the 21,523 standing and yelling outdoors. To conclude his speech — moments before the champagne flew through the air — Vermes grabbed the silver Cup and turned toward his team.
“This isn’t the last one this year,” he said. “Let’s go.”