KANSAS CITY, Kan. —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 — 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.”