In a press conference unveiling plans to create the Swope Park Rangers, Peter Vermes stressed that the United Soccer League franchise’s primary purpose would be developing talent for the parent club, Sporting Kansas City. Winning, he hoped, would simply be a byproduct of the cause. And for two seasons, it’s been exactly that.
But the ultimate win — a league championship — narrowly eluded the club once more.
Louisville City FC delivered a late game-winning goal in defeating the Swope Park Rangers 1-0 in the USL Cup Final on Monday.
The Rangers concluded their second season in the same spot they ended their first — as USL runner-up. The team is owned and operated by Sporting KC.
“We should be proud as an organization for what we achieved,” Swope Park coach Nikola Popovic said in a phone interview after the match, adding, “That development only makes sense through a winning mentality. We cannot develop, in my opinion, by having a losing team. Two years, we’ve had this mentality to win. And we were able to come to the final.”
Each time, the run has stopped there. Cameron Lancaster scored the lone goal in the 88th minute Monday, on a header in front of a sold-out crowd at Louisville Slugger Field in Louisville, Ky.
That halted a 318-minute shutout streak for Swope Park, the fourth seed out of the Western Conference. Three more minutes would have necessitated a pair of extra-time periods and potentially penalty kicks, the method by which Swope Park won its Western Conference quarterfinal and final matches.
In the moments leading up to Monday's title match, Swope Park Rangers captain Christian Duke remarked that his team had felt shell-shocked by the moment in its first opportunity. It showed in a 5-1 loss to the New York Red Bulls II.
Duke added that the Rangers were more prepared — mentally — for a second chance. And that showed, too. The Rangers doubled top-seeded Louisville’s shots on target (4-2). But none found the back of the net.
The flow of the game was choppy — which Popovic blamed on the field, usually reserved for baseball games.
“Unfortunately, it wasn’t very possible to play. We did not have the conditions to play soccer,” Popovic said. “Perhaps another sport we can play. But soccer, with all of the possession, it was very difficult to play here. This is not for soccer.”
Six players in the Swope Park starting lineup Monday are under contract with Sporting KC, though they have all spent the vast majority of the season with Swope Park. That was the concept behind the establishment in 2016 — to bridge the gap between Sporting Kansas City’s academy and its senior team, a method to offer players time to develop before being thrown into the MLS fire.
Vermes tasked assistant technical director Mike Jacobs with formulating a roster that reflected that mission. The philosophy, intertwined across all of Sporting Kansas City’s products, proved attractive outside the building. Nashville, an MLS expansion hopeful, hired Jacobs over the summer to be its technical director.
Swope Park, which does not have a player older than 27 on its roster, improved as the season progressed. It entered the final on a nine-match unbeaten streak. It failed to obtain No. 10.