KANSAS CITY, Kan. – As much as anyone, Sporting Kansas City goalkeeper Tim Melia appreciated how well Andrew Tarbell had played to put the San Jose Earthquakes on the brink of their first trip to the finals of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.
Even as he prepared to rob his colleague of deserved accolades.
“I told him right before the penalties,” Melia said, “that I thought he had an excellent game and he kept his team in it and he got his team to that point – and it was my job to take it away from him."
In the end, Melia's two saves to seal a 5-4 penalty shootout win in Wednesday night’s semifinal wiped out the 11 Tarbell made through 120 minutes of a 1-1 draw and put SKC on the doorstep of their third Open Cup title in six years.
And although Melia perhaps erased Tarbell's chance to become a cult hero, he also lifted the frustration for his offense. Sporting outshot the Earthquakes 31-11, only to be denied time and again by the second-year pro who started all four of San Jose’s Open Cup matches.
“We knew coming in that they were a really good offensive team, especially at home with the high press,” Tarbell told reporters. “We were ready for it, and we were ready to absorb some of that pressure, and we did, all night long.”
Tarbell became the first player to stop Benny Feilhaber from the spot in a Sporting kit, smothering the veteran No. 10’s shot in the opening round – only to see Melia answer immediately by denying Chris Wondolowski.
“I just think it helped our confidence a little bit going into the next rounds of shooting,” Melia said. “Benny is the guy that I would bet the most on making a penalty. He’s allowed to miss one, and fortunately we were able to win.
“So I think it was just the little confidence boost that we needed to get us through the rest of the shootout.”
The two sides traded conversions until the sixth round – the first round of sudden death – when captain Matt Besler put home his shot for Sporting and Melia saved Victor Bernardez’s answering attempt.
He’s now unbeaten in two shootouts with Kansas City – the first occasion coming in the 2015 U.S. Open Cup Final.
“I would say that Tim’s been really good on all parts of the game,” manager Peter Vermes said. “It’s not just PKs. I’m confident in our team, all the way around – Tim, the rest of the players, I’m confident.
“I believe that the right thing happened tonight. All due respect, San Jose played a hard-fought match but we were the better team and we deserved the victory. It was well-deserved. We had to fight for it. That builds some -- character’s not the right word. We made some deposits tonight about certain things that we’re going to be able to use later down the road, but it was a special performance tonight.”
Even with the shootout loss, Wednesday night’s showing could lead to talk of a first MLS start for Tarbell, who has worked just one 45-minute shift in league play. Coach Chris Leitch didn’t promise anything, though he noted the role the Cup starts had played in Tarbell’s development.
“It’s always good for a young player to step in and get some experience, for sure, and I think these games are really valuable for Andrew,” Leitch said. “He’s been playing some games for Reno, our USL team, but to get a game with a little more on the line for sure, and under the bright lights, has got to be big for his growth.”
Tarbell wasn’t looking past Wednesday night to his future prospects either, even given No.1 David Bingham’s struggles with consistency this season.
“It’s just great to get out there,” he said. “I haven’t played too many games in the year and a half I’ve been a professional, so any chance I get out there, I just try and enjoy it and give it my best.”