CHESTER, Pa. — Krisztián Németh grew up in northwest Hungary and moved on to play professionally in England, Greece and the Netherlands. He acknowledged Wednesday night that Kansas City isn’t the first place to which a foreign player with that sort of background considers moving. But it’s a place that quickly came to feel like home.
“From the beginning, I felt like I played like 10 years here already because of how welcoming they were and how the helped me,” Németh told SI.com. “It’s unbelievable.”
Tim Melia felt a similar sensation. The journeyman goalkeeper, now 29, played for four minor league teams before signing with Chivas USA in 2012. He played sparingly and then was part of the league’s supplemental goalkeeper pool last year when Sporting Kansas City brought him in. In December, he signed a contract with the club.
“The biggest thing here is just the structure,” he said inside the champagne-soaked visitors’ locker room at PPL Park, where SKC claimed its third U.S. Open Cup title with a 1–1 (7–6) shootout win over the Philadelphia Union. “There’s a blueprint of success from ownership to coaches to the players, and it really allows a particular type of player to shine. Everything is given to you here and it’s set up for you to be successful … [coach Peter Vermes] put in such a good blueprint where he can plug guys in and out of a system and it’s still successful.”
A few minutes earlier, Union coach Jim Curtin sat in the stadium’s media room and tried to process his club’s second straight defeat in a home Open Cup final. As in last year’s loss to the Seattle Sounders, Philadelphia played well enough to win. It took a deserved lead on Sébastien Le Toux’s 23rd-minute goal and came agonizingly close to a second. But once again, the Union couldn’t close the deal.
“It’s elusive for us right now,” Curtin said of the club’s pursuit of its first trophy. “It just didn’t go our way. Credit to Kansas City. It’s a very good team, a team that has a bunch of winners.”
SKC wasn’t the better team on Wednesday. But it was the winning team. Sporting demonstrated its ability to fight through adversity and handle the rough patches created by a spirited, occasionally desperate opponent. SKC made the play it needed to stay alive and then maintained its composure through the tension of an extended penalty shootout. Those intangibles often are the difference between gold and silver. It’s a mentality and culture that’s produced three major trophies in four seasons (SKC also won the 2012 Open Cup and ’13 MLS Cup) and then put Melia and Németh in position to be difference makers. Vermes and SKC’s veterans have built a foundation strong that’s enough to elevate newcomers.
“I think there were seven guys on the field at the beginning of the game that were part of the 2013 MLS Cup final,” Vermes said Wednesday. “That experience is huge. It took a long time to cultivate that group and I don’t want to say it’s everything, but it’s a lot … What else has transpired is that they’re now the ones that are raising the standard year after year so when new players come in there’s no flexibility for them to kind of come in and go their own way. They either adapt or adjust to the culture or they find themselves out pretty quickly.”
There wasn’t anything Sporting experienced Wednesday night that was unfamiliar. The wind and rain in Chester was nothing compared to the arctic conditions during the ’13 MLS Cup final. SKC fell behind that day to Real Salt Lake, and in the preceding conference final against the Houston Dynamo. Sporting went to penalty kicks against RSL and in the Open Cup final against Seattle the year before.
“It’s an intangible, but experience and having been there and having won goes a long way in these types of games,” SKC captain Matt Besler said.
When the tiebreaker started at PPL Park and as it dragged beyond the first 10 shooters, SKC’s confidence never wavered. And it was contagious. In the eighth round, Melia shifted to his right and saved a bid from Union forward Andrew Wenger. The visitors then were in position to clinch the title, and Jacob Peterson initially thought he’d take the next shot. But 21-year-old reserve midfielder Jordi Quintillà, who just started the first MLS game of his career on Sunday against Seattle, stepped in and informed Peterson that he’d be shooting instead. Quintillà rolled his shot slowly past Philadelphia’s John McCarthy as if it were no big deal, and Sporting was a champion again.
“This group has such resolve,” Melia said. “You put them in a corner, and they react ... They can pull results out of nowhere. Overall, we definitely didn’t control the game as much as we’d like to.”
They didn’t, but Melia and Németh rose to the occasion and made the plays that made the difference. They have adapted and integrated themselves into a winning culture and now they’re winners as well. Melia had six MLS starts entering this season. He now has 19, along with his five Open Cup triumphs. On Wednesday, he learned from Le Toux’s early goal and came off his line faster when the French forward was played through again late in the first half. This time, Melia made the save. He then recovered in time to deny a well-hit bid from Tranquillo Barnetta. Melia had seven stops overall then in the shootout, he stymied Maurice Edu and Wenger.
Németh provided the spark SKC needed on the offensive end. Philadelphia’s midfield did a fabulous job denying space to playmaker Benny Feilhaber and service to striker Dom Dwyer. That left a bit more space on the flanks, where Németh and Graham Zusi were active but not very effective early. But in the 65th, Németh found the sliver of space he needed. Zusi poked the ball across the top of the penalty area and the Hungarian international curled a perfect, one-time shot just inside the right post.
“It’s maybe the most important goal in my career,” he said.
“The goal they had is not savable,” Curtin said. “It’s a world-class finish. It kind of stunned us a bit.”
Said Besler: “Krisztián is a quality player. In these types of games, the difference between scoring a goal and winning and losing is very marginal. Big players step up in those opportunities. Krisztián is a big player and a quality player.”
He was quality before coming to Kansas City. But Kansas City helped him become a champion.
“I always wanted to play in a team like this,” Németh said. “If you’re a new player, from the beginning you have to take the style and play like how the team was playing before. Especially the new guys, always the city and the club help them a lot from the beginning … If you work like a team and in Peter’s system, that’s how it is. That’s why we are good and why we have very good players. I’m really happy.”
Curtin called winning a trophy, “The hardest thing to do in our game.” Claiming the first one is especially difficult. Creating those championship intangibles is tough. You need them to win, but you have to win to sustain them. Somehow, SKC has figured out that chicken-and-egg formula, and it’s now almost self-sustaining. On Wednesday, the club enhanced its championship pedigree while forging new winners in Melia and Németh. And so it continues.
“I always wanted to play in a team like this,” Németh said.
“Leaving Chivas, I was going to be very selective and particular about where I ended up,” Melia said. “I wanted to make sure it was a good club and a place I could be successful.”