• Peter Vermes' constant tinkering and forward planning have led to Sporting KC's unparalleled success.
By Brian Straus
September 21, 2017

Sporting Kansas City was able to celebrate this title, its fourth in six seasons, a bit early.

In three previous major finals under coach Peter Vermes, Sporting needed to fight through extra time and penalty kicks (and on two occasions, extra penalties) to reach the promised land. On Wednesday night, inside a stadium where it’s been unbeatable and in an environment where championships are becoming custom, SKC didn’t have to travel nearly as far.

Yes, Bradley Wright-Phillips had just about everyone at Children’s Mercy Park holding their breath with his 91st-minute goal, which brought the New York Red Bulls to within one in the 104th U.S. Open Cup final. But that was as far as the visitors would go. Compared to Sporting’s recent title games, this 2-1 triumph was a rout. The club’s fourth major honor in six seasons—the best run in MLS—may have been secure as soon as CMP was selected as the site of the final. And It was sealed in the 66th minute of the match, when substitute Dániel Sallói slipped behind the New York defense and put SKC up by two.

The victory cements Sporting as Major League Soccer’s premier small/mid-size market club and demonstrates Vermes’ ability to maintain a winning culture even while massaging his roster, parting with big names and altering the style. It also sends SKC back to the CONCACAF Champions League, although it’ll have to wait until 2019 for that opportunity.

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For New York, it extends the interminable wait for an MLS or Open Cup title. The Red Bulls certainly have suffered more than their fair share of agonizing knockout losses. Wednesday’s was tough, but it doesn’t have to be counted among them. This was a tall task in an inhospitable setting, and New York made a game of it. Sporting just doesn’t lose at CMP, and it made a few more plays when it counted most.

Here are three thoughts on the Open Cup final:

Sporting goes outside in for the win

The Red Bulls’ starting 11 was relatively narrow and they struggled at times staying organized while dealing with SKC’s ability to quickly switch the point of attack. Sporting forwards Gerso Fernandes and Latif Blessing caused trouble early, and eventually, both SKC goals came from perfectly-hit but uncontested passes from the flanks.

The hosts took the lead in the 25th minute when Benny Feilhaber spotted right back Graham Zusi alone on the right. This was part of Sporting’s plan and a primary reason the veteran moved from midfield to defense over the winter—establish shape and possession, then call on a back with the passing skill of a playmaker. Zusi’s first-time cross was on the money, and it so bewildered the Red Bulls defense that the 5-foot-5 Blessing easily found room to hammer his header home.

The second-half ball that freed Sallói came from the left, curled in smartly by Feilhaber, and it left the New York back line late and flat-footed. Goalkeeper Ryan Meara charged out, but not in time to prevent Sallói from getting the one touch he needed.

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New York’s strength, from Tyler Adams to Sacha Kljestan and Wright-Phillips, is central. And it’s a team that, at the moment, is quite young in back. Sporting’s quality was more evenly spread out Wednesday.

This is a big win for Vermes

Vermes won trophies with an imposing, athletic, high-pressing team. He created a culture. Then he nibbled at the club’s core so that only four of the men who played in the 2013 MLS Cup final remained in KC. And he tried to diversify the approach and the attack, prompting Zusi’s move and making the likes of Dom Dwyer expendable.

Sporting routinely has won the possession battle this year. It didn’t against New York, not by a long shot, but it can play the quick counter game as well. That’s in SKC’s DNA. This is now a side that can win in a variety of ways, and Vermes has pushed the right buttons and cultivated the right players. He couldn’t have planned for Blessing’s 43rd-minute exit (Sallói came on) or Fernandes reportedly separating his shoulder just a few minutes before the second goal. But Jimmy Medranda was ready and effective in reserve. Then Sallói, a 21-year-old Hungarian who first moved to Kansas City area as an exchange student, made the most of his opportunity.

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Goalie Tim Melia consistently rises to the occasion in big games—he’s another unheralded Vermes find—and Spanish center midfielder Ilie Sánchez has proven to be an outstanding pickup who holds down the fort while Feilhaber, Zusi, Seth Sinovic and Roger Espinoza get forward.

Vermes has kept the right components of his core while adding pieces that make SKC just a bit more flexible and dynamic. And he’s now won another trophy while guiding his team to the second-best record in MLS’s Western Conference. Under Vermes, Sporting’s success has proven sustainable.

Red Bulls still searching for big break

Maybe if the draw had gone differently, the final would’ve been at Red Bull Arena. Maybe another referee sees SKC’s Diego Rubio kick out at Felipe in the opening minutes and sends him off, leaving New York a man up for nearly 90 minutes. On a different night, Wright-Phillips probably hits that beautiful 20th-minute cross from Tyler Adams first time instead of trying to bring it down. Why would one of the best pure finishers in MLS history not take that shot? Who knows? Things just kind of happen during knockout games (and before) that determine their outcome, and once again, those things didn’t favor the Red Bulls. Their name just wasn’t on the Cup. Again.

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The aforementioned issues out wide almost certainly wouldn’t have been as pronounced had Austrian winger Daniel Royer been ready to play. He’s returning from a knee injury and has been training, but Wednesday’s game came just a bit too soon. Maybe if it was a couple weeks later. And the timing wasn’t good for the collective, either. Nobody wants to enter a final on a five-game winless run. Marsch gave the start in goal to Meara thanks to his results in previous Open Cup games, and the manager was applauded for it. But there’s a reason Luis Robles is the Red Bull No. 1. Does Robles get to Sallói in time?

Those aren’t excuses. The 0-4-1 streak certainly is on New York. But a lot has to go right to win a trophy, both in and out of a team’s control, and once again the Red Bulls couldn’t find the formula. Some of it’s their fault. Some, like facing a team that hasn’t lost a home game in a year, isn’t. But it’s always something.

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