KANSAS CITY, Kan. (Via U.S. Soccer) – Sporting Kansas City kept alive their perfect record in Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Finals, beating New York Red Bulls 2-1 to claim their fourth crown in this the 104th installment of U.S. Soccer’s club championship.
In front of a huge home crowd of 21,523 (third-largest in the history of Children’s Mercy Park), Peter Vermes’ SKC were in control from the start, and goals from Latif Blessing and substitute Daniel Salloi were enough to give the home team, and their boisterous fans, yet another night to savor.
The first-half proved that the pre-game promises of a wide-open Final that came from both sides were more than just empty advertising. Inside the 3rd minute, Gerso Fernandes latched onto a clever diagonal pass from Roger Espinoza and snuck in behind a flat Red Bull defense. Only a last-ditch tackle from Aaron Long kept the home side from carving out an early lead.
The pattern repeated itself on the ten-minute mark, with the speedy Gerso racing in from the right side and collecting the ball again from the foraging Espinoza. This time, though, the live-wire attacker made the wrong choice. Instead of pulling the trigger from a tight angle, he tried to lay the ball back across the box for the onrushing Benny Feilhaber. The noisy section behind the goal, the one they call the Claudron, responded with a groan before promptly getting back to drumming, chanting and general merry-making.
Bradley Wright-Phillips plowed a lone furrow for himself in attack at the other end. But even all on his own, the English-born striker was a threat not to be underestimated. His first effort to get on the end of a long ball saw him stray into an offside position. The next time, Matt Besler bundled him over. But the time after that, in the 13th minute, BWP forced SKC keeper Tim Melia to stretch to his limits and punch clear at the last possible second. The goalkeeper, who only allowed one goal in four games leading up to the Final, wasn’t off the hook yet. Sacha Kljestan, Red Bulls captain, got hold of the clearance and fired low with his right foot, forcing Melia into another fingertip save.
It was the Red Bulls turn to take the game by the scruff of the neck. Shortly after their captain made Melia work, U.S. youth international and native New Yorker Tyler Adams tried his luck from the edge of the box too. Melia, again, was equal to the task with a fine low save.
But all that good work proved a false dawn for the New Yorkers. In the 25th minute, the roof flew off Children’s Mercy Park when Latif Blessing – the shortest and slightest player on the pitch – rose highest to meet Graham Zusi’s inch-perfect cross from the right to make it 1-0 for the home team. Ryan Meara got a glove to the shot, but the effort only had eyes for the net.
In the venerable tradition of the best cup finals, the game developed a physical edge. It straddled the line between tough and nasty. Every loose ball was challenged and every player on the pitch, even the darlings like SKC schemer Benny Feilhaber and New York’s elegant Kljestan, went hell for leather into tackles and 50-50 balls.
In the 41st minute, the diminutive Blessing was at it again. This time he hustled and harried to win the ball deep in his own half before sending a curling ball 60 yards up the field to pick out the flying Gerso. The man from Guinea-Bissau was all alone and bearing down on goal. A tug of the shirt from Adams and a charge from Meara, who stood in for regular No.1 Luis Robles for every minute of the Red Bulls’ 2017 Open Cup campaign, was enough to throw off Gerso’s shot and keep the game alive.
Having turned the contest on its ear with a goal and no shortage of lively play, it was a sad sight to see Blessing limp off two minutes from the interval with an injury. There was the sense he had more to offer the game with his guile and pace. Tempers flared on the stroke of half-time with both sets of player agitated over tight calls and even tighter no-calls.
The second-half picked up right where the first let off, with both sides fighting for every ball. Sporting Kansas City, with a 1-0 lead to comfort them, didn’t need to take any chances. Vermes strengthened the midfield by bringing on Jimmy Medranda for Gerso, almost daring the Red Bulls to push into attack.
But before the visitors even had a chance to mount a charge, Sporting KC doubled their lead in the 66th minute. Feilhaber collected the ball out wide on the left and used his fly’s-eye vision to curl a pass in for Salloi, the substitute from Hungary who came on to replace opening goal-scorer Blessing. Meara hesitated before racing off his line and found himself in no-man’s land by the time the wispy Salloi stretched to poke the ball home to a roar of delight from the elated Kansas City crowd. They could sense a fourth Open Cup crown was on the cards for their heroes.
And so it was to be. Despite a late Wright-Phillips consolation goal in injury time, the 2-1 result earns Sporting Kansas City $250,000 dollars in prize money and a place in the CONCACAF Champions League, the competition which sends CONCACAF’s representative to the annual FIFA Club World Cup. But all of that is gravy for later, as the night and its celebrations, both in the stands and down on the pitch, were what it was all about. It was a fitting end to another unforgettable Open Cup.