CHESTER, Pa. — Sporting Kansas City proved its penalty kick mettle once again, while the agony increased for the star-crossed Philadelphia Union, who fell for the second straight season in a U.S. Open Cup final on home soil.
Philadelphia’s Sébastien Le Toux and SKC’s Krisztián Németh traded goals during a 1–1 draw through regulation and overtime, and Sporting goalkeeper Tim Melia then made two saves in the eight-round shootout, helping the visitors to their third U.S. Open Cup championship and third major trophy in four years. SKC reserve midfielder Jordi Quintillà, 21, rolled his penalty home with confidence to seal the tiebreaker, 7–6, after Andrew Wenger had his penalty saved in the eighth round.
SKC also won the 2012 Open Cup and ’13 MLS Cup on penalty kicks. The Union, meanwhile, suffered heartbreak at home once again. Last year, Philadelphia lost the Open Cup final to the Seattle Sounders in overtime. This time, it survived the extra 30 minutes against a more seasoned opponent only to fall in the tiebreaker.
Here are three thoughts from the 102nd Open Cup final at rainy PPL Park:
Sporting’s newcomers shine
SKC laid a championship foundation with the likes of Matt Besler, Graham Zusi and Benny Feilhaber. But on Wednesday, with a trophy line, it was a couple of unheralded newcomers who made the difference.
Melia, 29, is an MLS starter for the first time. The former Lynn University netminder bounced around the minor leagues, from the Long Island Rough Riders to the Charleston Battery, before riding the bench at Chivas USA. He then was part of MLS’s goalkeeper pool—available to be called up for short-term duty by a team in need of an extra goalie. Last August, SKC faced such circumstances, called up Melia and then signed him in December. He’s been solid this season and was outstanding on Wednesday. His 37th-minute denial of Le Toux set the tone for his seven-save evening, and he stopped two penalties during the shootout. He lunged to the right to stymie Maurice Edu in the third round, then stood his ground and saved Wenger’s bid in the eighth.
Németh saw his penalty saved, but SKC wouldn’t have reached the tiebreaker without him. His 65th-minute goal was spectacular. Perhaps the most underrated MLS newcomer this season, Németh met Zusi’s pass toward the top of the Union penalty area and curled a perfect shot past goalkeeper Andre Blake and inside the right post. The Hungarian has 13 goals and seven assists this season and has scored in four consecutive Open Cup matches.
This was a gripping final
Cup finals are frequently, or at least stereotypically, defensive and dour. The high stakes and tiny margins between victory and defeat often promote caution at the expense of daring. Nobody wants to make the critical mistake.
There were plenty of mistakes on Wednesday, which was part of the reason this final was so entertaining. If anything, it looked like a bit like an early season affair. There wasn’t a whole lot of rhythm and the timing often was off, but there was robust effort and a field full of players willing to take risks in order to make an impact.
It had a bit of everything. The wind and rain helped set the stage underneath the darkening Commodore Barry Bridge, and the fans in the boisterous River End provided ample atmosphere for a crowd numbering only 14,463. There were gorgeous goals, multiple swings in momentum, 10 yellow cards, late tackles and mistimed pyrotechnics (pretty much everyone saw an offside flag nullify Cristian Maidana’s second-half goal except for the PPL Park staffer operating the flamethrowers behind the net). There was a bit of controversy, like when Chance Myers escaped sanction for a boot to the Blake’s head, and several noteworthy outings.
The Philadelphia midfield turned in one of its best performances of the season. Michael Lahoud anchored a resolute defensive effort that largely nullified Feilhaber, SKC’s talented playmaker. Dom Dwyer, the visitors’ leading scorer, also was a non-factor as service was limited. Lahoud’s partner in central midfield, Vincent Nogueira, was fantastic as a deep-lying playmaker. His stunning, long-range through ball in the 23rd minute set up Le Toux’s opener, and he set the table again for the Frenchman toward the end of the first half. That time Melia was up to the challenge.
Zusi played a solid 120 minutes and frequently was a factor, and both teams had their chances in overtime. Union coach Jim Curtin took a gamble before the tiebreaker, inserting previous Open Cup shootout hero John McCarthy (normally the Union’s starting goalie) in place of Blake. He made the one save on Németh. It wasn’t enough for the Union to win, but it certainly added to the drama.
Union at a crossroads
This was a game that meant an enormous amount to Philadelphia, a club set to miss the MLS playoffs for the fourth consecutive season. Its future is in question. Reports this week that it was preparing to hire a senior sporting director, which the club denied, highlighted the sense of upheaval at a team where the power structure remains unclear.
A trophy would have gone a long way toward easing the frustration of suffering Union supporters and, perhaps, cementing Curtin’s position after a season-and-a-half at the helm. Instead, with several player contracts expiring, a couple players on loan and only one early playoff exit and two Open Cup silver medals to show for six years of effort, the Union appear to be back at square one. There will be no boost in allocation money or CONCACAF Champions League to which to look forward. Instead, apart from the corner of PPL Park where SKC players celebrated with about 1,000 traveling fans, there was disappointment and plenty of questions in Philadelphia.