KANSAS CITY, Mo. – A sidewalk in the Brookside neighborhood, a couple of miles west of where Sporting Kansas City were training for their third Lamar Hunt US Open Cup final in six years, currently bears a neatly stenciled message in bright blue spray paint.
There was a depiction of the trophy itself, and underneath it the words:
“WE WANT THE CUP
GOTTA HAVE THAT CUP”
Seven years ago, before the Kansas City Wizards rebranded, moved into a shiny new stadium and started collecting trophies and playoff appearances, you wouldn’t have seen something like that.
Oh, a decent number of people knew what the Open Cup was – and there are longtime followers who can recall the Wizards winning the 2004 title in front of just 8,819 fans at 80,000-seat Arrowhead Stadium.
(I was there, in the stands. When Igor Simutenkov scored a gorgeous free-kick golden goal to beat Chicago 1-0, I looked around for someone to high-five. There was nobody within three rows.)
Things have changed since then, obviously. People here WANT THE CUP. They want multiple Cups. And what’s more, they’ve come to expect them – and why shouldn’t they? Since the rebrand, Sporting have played in three tournament finals – two Open Cups, one MLS Cup – and they’ve won them all.
“So far, that’s been the case,” center back and captain Matt Besler, one of three players to start in all three of those matches, told reporters before Tuesday’s training session. “But just because it’s been that way in previous years and past history doesn’t mean anything. We have to do our best to separate ourselves from what’s happened on the past and what lies ahead, and that’s obviously Wednesday night.”
Besler’s level-headed approach is what manager Peter Vermes has always preached. At the same time, it’s easy to see why supporters expect the fourth Open Cup title in club history on Wednesday against the New York Red Bulls (9 pm ET; ESPN2), if for no other reason than the simple fact that Sporting keep finding ways to win them.
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2012 U.S. Open Cup
Take the one that started the post-rebrand run of championships, for example. The 2012 U.S. Open Cup final was settled (as were all three of Sporting’s title matches in this decade) on penalties after a 1-1 draw through 120 minutes.
If Paulo Nagamura doesn’t have a short conversation with referee Ricardo Salazar during the penalty stage and nail his retake after Seattle ‘keeper Michael Gspurning came off his line to save the first try or if Sporting’s Jimmy Nielsen doesn’t game his way into Eddie Johnson’s head and get him to fire over the bar, the Sounders might well have had the fourth straight USOC title their fans had been pre-celebrating during the run-up to the final.
“I felt like I was a young player back then,” Besler said. “I probably was. That was our first real opportunity at winning something as a group. That one will always stick out as the first time, the first final in our new stadium.”
2013 MLS Cup final
Or take the 2013 MLS Cup final, when Nielsen – playing with three broken ribs in subfreezing temperatures – was bailed out multiple times by the woodwork during regulation but somehow came up with a huge save to keep alive a 10-round penalty stage that eventually saw Sporting prevail against Real Salt Lake.
While we’re talking big moments and breaks, let’s not forget that MLS Cup MVP and current Red Bulls defender Aurelien Collin, a center back who had never taken a spot kick in a match as a professional, hit his decisive attempt perfectly – or that he probably should have seen a second yellow for a hard foul in regulation.
2015 U.S. Open Cup
And in the shootout stage of the 2015 Open Cup final, a lanky Spaniard named Jordi Quintilla, who did nothing else of real note for Sporting during his time with the club, jumped the order to take his spot kick in Jacob Peterson’s place. “Jake, I go,” he said, and delivered a slow, left-footed roller that caught Philadelphia’s John McCarthy going the wrong way.
“I think when you’re a competitor, I think you have humble confidence most of the time, and I think our group is humbly confident in the way we play,” Vermes said on Tuesday. “But by any means, do we expect to win? We’re going to go out and give everything we have. We know that we’re playing a really tough opponent.”
As Besler also noted, Wednesday’s match is its own event, to be decided between the opening whistle and the final celebration. At the same time, those past experiences in raising trophies have to come into play in important ways for Sporting.
For one thing, Tim Melia – a former MLS pool goalkeeper who emerged as the starter in time to win that 2015 Open Cup shootout – has been one of MLS’s best ‘keepers this year and is a proven penalty-stopper.
And for another, Besler and fullbacks Seth Sinovic and Graham Zusi are all veterans of those three previous finals. That’s three-quarters of the backline, two of them US internationals, even though Zusi is a transplanted winger.
“I think experience will prove pretty vital in this game,” Zusi said. “A lot of us have been there before, and we know what comes with finals. Obviously, we know how to win them as well. Experience – not just in the back line but up the field as well – is going to prove to be pretty important.”
Obviously, somebody with a stencil and a can of spray paint believes the same thing.