As it turns out, there is absolutely no paint involved in “painting the wall.”
Instead, Sporting Kansas City goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen climbed a 20-foot ladder and arranged the pre-molded numbers 2-0-1-2 on the wall in the northeast corner of Livestrong Sporting Park under the heading “U.S. Open Cup Champions.”
Only minutes earlier, Nielsen, the club’s Danish-born captain who turned 35 on Monday, had led Sporting KC to 3-2 shootout victory in the 99th Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup against the Seattle Sounders FC.
With that, Sporting KC ended the Sounders’ bid for an historic fourth straight U.S. Open Cup crown and snapped their own eight-year championship drought, claiming the first cup title of any kind since OnGoal LLC bought the club six years ago this month.
“Our ownership group has made a strong commitment — not only to soccer, but the community, facilities and everything,” Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes said. “It’s a great reward for them and our staff with the rebrand and everything we’ve done in the last year and a half. More importantly, for the players, they believed and fought hard.”
After battling to a 1-1 draw through regulation and two 15-minute overtime periods to reach the shootout, Sporting KC hoisted a trophy for the first time since 2004 when Igor Simuntenkov’s golden goal delivered the club’s only other U.S. Open Cup title.
That also was the last time the nation’s oldest soccer tourney went to overtime as Simuntenkov’s goal was the difference in a 1-0 win against the Chicago Fire at Arrowhead Stadium.
“It means everything to have a championship now with this group,” Sporting KC midfielder Graham Zusi said. “The commitment that we put into this tournament was huge. We’ve said from the beginning of the season this was one of our main goals. It’s just unbelievable the way it has paid off, but the team and organization deserve this.”
As expected, the atmosphere at Livestrong Sporting Park was electric — quite literally electric before the game as lightning and the accompanying rain/hail storm forced a 43-minute delay before it was deemed safe for kickoff.
More lightning would ripple through the clouds in the distance throughout the night as if feeding off the energy from the first standing-room only crowd for a U.S. Open Cup final.
With each pass, each whistle, each shot in the second half as the minutes clicked along in a scoreless game, the few fans who were seated crept more to the edge of their chairs and knuckles grew ever whiter, the air becoming thick with tension instead of choked by humidity.
It was the 84th minute before the crowd first exhaled — with a monster roar — as Kei Kamara gently rolled a shot from the penalty spot along the ground into the right side of the net.
Sounders defender Zach Scott had been whistled for playing Teal Bunbury’s cross into the box two minutes earlier with his arm, allowing Sporting KC to grab the lead.
But Seattle equalized two minutes later when midfielder Mauro Rosales curled a free kick into the center of the Sporting KC goal box — just over Kamara’s head — allowing Scott, who redirected the ball into the left side of goal, to atone.
“We showed a lot of grit and a lot of courage to stay in the game and not lose our focus because of that equalizer,” Vermes said.
In fact, Sporting KC seemed to control most of the 30 extra minutes.
The Sounders even went down a man when defender Patrick Ianni was ejected after receiving his second yellow card in the 118th minute, but ultimately the game would be decided in a shootout.
“I ran out to the middle before we kicked off the shootout and I told the guys, ‘No matter what happens, stay focused on the next guy. Don’t get caught up in what just happened. Stay focused on the next shot,’” Vermes said. “The guys did a great job with that and Jimmy came up huge.”
Kamara converted from the spot for a second time as Sporting KC opened the five-kick tiebreaker, but Brad Evans matched with a blast into the left side.
Seattle’s goalkeeper, Michael Gspurning, saved Roger Espinoza’s ensuing try before Marc Burch lifted the visitors into the lead with a successful conversion to the right side.
Matt Besler tucked his penalty kick high into the right side off the bottom of the crossbar to level things at 2-2 before Osvaldo Alonso and Zusi ripped their tries high.
Nielsen reclaimed the momentum for Sporting KC, denying Christian Tiffert with a sublime diving save to his left.
That brought up veteran Paulo Nagamura, whose initial try — a volley to the right side — was saved by Gspurning, who had come off his line too early resulting in a retake.
“Before the shootout, we had mentioned that to the ref,” Besler said. “We watched film, and their goalie likes to cheat a little bit and come out before the shot. That’s something Jimmy told the ref before the shootout and he got caught.”
Given a second chance, Nagamura — his left cheeked covered in a blood-soaked bandage from an early-game collision with Sounders midfielder Alex Caskey — put Sporting KC in front with a low roller inside the left post.
“I just had to keep my composure,” Nagamura said. “I trained real well this week, so I was confident that I was going to put it in.”
That meant Eddie Johnson, who played for the then-Wizards from 2006-07, had to connect to extend the shootout. But he couldn’t deliver, sending his try over the crossbar and gift-wrapping a title for his former franchise.
“That was a crazy shootout — a lot of momentum changes,” Besler said. “You usually don’t see that either. Usually, if a guy misses, the momentum swings and that’s it. But for us to come back from being down a goal a few times, it’s just incredible for this team.”
The last time the U.S. Open Cup was decided in a penalty-kick shootout was 1997 when FC Dallas beat D.C. United.
“This is one of the best feelings I’ve ever had, and I’m so happy because the fans really deserved it tonight,” said left back Chance Myers, who returned after missing nearly a month with a groin strain. “They really did play a part in winning the shootout for us.”
With the victory, Sporting KC also qualified for the CONCACAF Champions League, which brings together cup winners from throughout North and Central America as well as the Caribbean for a select tournament.
“That’s probably the biggest tournament that we can be part of, so for us to be qualified for that is awesome,” Zusi said. “They start those games up in January, but that’s just another trophy that we can go after.”
To reach Tod Palmer, call 816-234-4389 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/todpalmer.