Through the frustrations of a trying season, the U.S. Open Cup has offered Sporting Kansas City security. A safe haven, of sorts.
Few teams dominate the tournament to the manner in which Sporting has over the past decade, with championship trophies from 2012, 2015 and 2017 sitting in a case at Pinnacle to prove it.
But in the midst of a lengthy slump, the safe haven is gone, too.
Minnesota United FC delivered Sporting KC an unceremonious exit from the Open Cup, a 4-1 blowout Wednesday.
Minnesota pounded three goals into the net in the decisive second half, each of them seemingly more open than the last, taking advantage of a slew of breakdowns on Sporting’s back end.
“The frustration is that we’ve always been a team that’s very, very good defensively, and at the moment we’re not playing defensively at a level in which you give yourself a real chance in the game,” Sporting coach Peter Vermes said in a phone interview. “We’re just not.”
Five days after a late goal plagued Sporting KC in league play, the early nature of the goals stood as the surprise. Well, early and often.
Only 115 seconds into the game, Angelo Rodriguez sieged on the first breakdown, found himself alone in the penalty area and nutmegged goalkeeper Adrian Zendejas. Five minutes later, Zendejas needed a high-quality save on forward Ethan Finlay to prevent a two-goal advantage. But only briefly.
After Gerso Fernandes pulled Sporting KC even before halftime, Minnesota pounced early again, a tone-setter for the second half. Just 42 seconds after emerging from the locker room, Finlay gave Minnesota another lead, another unmolested run into the penalty area. Darwin Quintero expanded the advantage to 3-1 in the 55th minute and then added another in the 67th.
“You can’t give up a goal two minutes into the game and then (a minute) into the second half,” Vermes said. “It’s demoralizing for the team.”
A couple of odd bounces put Fernandes’ goal in the back of the net for Sporting KC. He sent a one-hopper past keeper Vito Mannone after Jimmy Medranda bounced one his way. Fernandes has scored five goals this season, none of them in MLS play. He scored four in the CONCACAF Champions League.
But that was it. The Open Cup runs that have defined Peter Vermes’ tenure will be nonexistent — and certainly undeserving — in 2019.
“It’s really hard to be constantly chasing the game,” Vermes said. “We did a good job to get back in the game. We start the second half (with) the game up for grabs, and we give a soft goal away.”
With the swell of the injury list interrupting Sporting Kansas City’s early-season plan to rotate the lineup, its remaining healthy players have logged sizable minutes. The Open Cup offered an opportunity to rotate the group, and perhaps an early exit from the competition will facilitate a silver lining heading into the second half of the MLS season.
On Wednesday, with five players out to injury (Matt Besler, Roger Espinoza, Jaylin Lindsey, Erik Hurtado and Rodney Wallace) and four more to international absence (Johnny Russell, Krisztian Nemeth, Botond Barath and Nicolas Hasler), coach Peter Vermes played mostly the front-line group available to him, with a few exceptions.
Zendejas relieved Tim Melia in goal, as he did for the early rounds of last year’s Open Cup tournament, when Sporting won a pair of matches to reach the quarterfinals in its title defense. Jimmy Medranda started at left back in place of regular Seth Sinovic, Medranda’s first start in more than a year. Since returning from a knee injury last month, Medranda had played only 14 minutes.
In what would have been his first game against his former team, Minnesota United defender Ike Opara sat with an undisclosed injury. Minnesota also played without midfielder Osvaldo Alonso and forward Abu Danladi.