Jay Bell took in the game then ran around grabbing sound bytes like a squirrel stocking nuts for the winter.
The story off the field of last night’s dramatic US Open Cup final victory for Sporting Kansas City is easy to write. A multi-year process was undertaken by Robb Heineman and Sporting Club, formerly OnGoal, LLC, to re-brand the Kansas City Wizards as Sporting Kansas City and build a progressive Major League Soccer franchise. That process resulted in a first-class stadium in LIVESTRONG Sporting Park, a fervent fan base and now a US Open Cup championship.
The attitude isn’t just team-first at SKC, it’s organization-first and community-first.
“I feel extremely happy,” said goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen after the victory. “I think it is so well deserved for this whole organization and the whole city. There’s a lot of hard-working people in this organization doing a great job to promote the soccer team. This is not only Sporting Kansas City’s win tonight. It’s the whole area; whole Kansas City. I think it’s unbelievable how soccer has been growing here the last year and a half.”
“It’s a team,” said fan-favorite Kei Kamara, who collapsed on the field once the win was secured. “Owner Robb Heineman put the perfect letter on Twitter earlier, ‘Everybody is Sporting Kansas City.” The front office, fans, everybody, players — we’re all one.”
“I really mean this, it’s not really anything that I feel personally,” said SKC head coach Peter Vermes. “I really feel more for our ownership group because they’ve invested so much into this team to try to turn it around and turn into a real professional sport in this area. Obviously, you see the environment. It’s unreal. You can’t deny that. Our fans — it’s a reward to them. It’s a reward to our ownership group and our staff for the hard work that they do putting all this stuff together and putting it on. Finally, the players, they have stayed very committed and we’ve been building this over the last three years. We’re now here and it’s an exciting time.”
That excitement and reward was never certain for the home team in Wednesday night’s match. The Seattle Sounders traveled to KC as one of the hottest teams in MLS and as the three-time defending US Open Cup champions. The Sounders had never lost a US Open Cup match as an MLS club.
Sporting was in the ascendancy in the early going. Osvaldo Alonso picked up a card for Seattle in the fifth minute and Paulo Nagamura was able to shake off a tough early challenge to the face that would be covered by a bandage for the rest of the game. Sporting was never able to find the key pass or shot. Teal Bunbury scuffed one early shot and later did not see an open Kamara waiting inside the penalty area. Graham Zusi was also left without service on the right despite drifting away from the defense.
Still, Seattle was on its back foot for much of the first half. Kamara saw a deflected show bounce off the crossbar in the 25th minute in the closest opportunity of the first half. Seattle head coach Sigi Schmid later expressed his disappointment in the team’s lack of possession in the first half.
“We wanted to come out and play our normal style,” Vermes said. “We’re a high-tempo, high up-the-field type team. We did that from the very beginning. I think it was tough for (Seattle) to come out of the defensive end. I think that was hard for them.”
Eddie Johnson was the danger man for Seattle in the first half. Johnson had a header saved by Nielsen and another shot go wide on the break within a span of five minutes in the middle of the first half.
“They started to get a little bit of the run of play because we couldn’t maintain that tempo for the entire half,” Vermes said. “We got a couple good looks around the goal. We hit the crossbar and the ball came out. We had a couple good opportunities. (Seattle) had a really good one early. Jimmy made a great save. I really believe that throughout the game we just kept driving at them, driving at them, driving at them, put them under a lot of pressure and it took them out of their rhythm.”
SKC did more than take Seattle out of their rhythm, they rendered Fredy Montero invisible (which apparently happens once every 70 games) and marginalized the dangerous Mauro Rosales, at least for much of the match. Johnson was left as the most dangerous attacker for the Sounders and Vermes was pleased with how his defense handled the opposing attacking triumvirate.
“We really didn’t give (Johnson) a lot of chances over the top,” Vermes said. “The attentiveness and alertness from our team, which is a big thing that we talked about, was very, very good. I thought our guys really did a great job of really closing those guys down. At the end of the day, (Seattle) had a lot of courage to come in here and play the way they did. I really felt that we deserved the win.”
Seattle’s defense was every bit up to the task as well. As SKC was unable to maintain the furious tempo, the Sounders stifled every attack. Zusi was no longer finding space and the forwards were often marked by two defenders.
Play only became choppier in the second half as a field full of weary legs slowed. SKC was the recipient of the first fortunate bounce when Zach Scott was called for a handball in the box, giving SKC a penalty kick in the 83rd minute. Kamara stepped up and slotted the PK into the bottom right corner of the net to give Sporting the first lead of the match.
The three-time defending champions would not go quietly, as Scott answered on the other end just three minutes later with a header on a set piece from Mauro Rosales to tie the game at 1-1.
“It’s been great,” Schmid said of Seattle’s US Open Cup success. “The team has shown their ability — even when we went down one-nothing tonight, we came back right away and got the equalizer. And I think that is the character of the team. And obviously there were guys out there playing on fumes and there was no air for them to get because of the fact that they had played so many minutes over the last 10 days.”
“I knew that even when we went down one-nothing that we would get one back,” Schmid said. “I felt it was a little bit of fate as well because I felt there’s was undeserved. We ended up getting it right back and equalizing the game.”
The 30 minutes of extra time featured more languid pressing by both teams, but tired legs and staunch defenses dictated a choppy interim between the end of regular time and penalty kicks.
Controversy now surrounds the deciding penalty kicks, beginning with the decision to have them taken in front of the SKC supporters’ section, the Cauldron.
“Apparently Kansas City got to decide where the penalties were taken,” Schmid said. “What can you say? You sit there and you throw up your hands and you go, ‘Okay.’
“We just felt that wasn’t the end that you would take them at. The referee anywhere in the world is not going to take them in front of the most rowdy fans in the stadium.”
Kamara and Brad Evans put in the first two PK’s. Olympian Roger Espinoza followed with a tame effort that was saved by Seattle GK Michael Gspurning. Substitute Marc Burch gave Seattle a lead and Matt Besler stepped up to tie the PK’s at 2-2.
Seattle’s momentum was halted when Alonso blasted his attempt over the bar, an interesting twist for both he and Espinoza to miss considering the tireless effort they put in for their respective teams during the match. The drama continued as Zusi looped his attempt over the right side of the goal and newly-signed Designated Player Christian Tiffert had his attempt saved by Nielsen.
Nagamura’s shot was saved by Gspurning, but referee Ricardo Salazar ruled that Gspurning had left his line early. Nagamura then converted the second attempt to put SKC ahead 3-2.
Johnson was to take the fifth and final penalty kick for Seattle. He was met by some verbal and physical gamesmanship from Nielsen. When asked what he said to Johnson, Nielsen said, “That would be too many beeps on that machine there.” Nielsen said he changed his tactics during the penalty kicks, but did not offer any specifics. Nielsen moved frantically from side-to-side as Johnson prepared for his attempt.
“I had a Plan A and a Plan B on the shootout,” Nielsen said. “I didn’t really feel my Plan A worked for me. So, I changed a little bit and was trying to mess around a little bit and get in their head. I made the right choice though.”
Johnson skied his attempt over the bar as the capacity crowd at LIVESTRONG Sporting Park erupted.
“It is what it is, but I’m very proud of what we accomplished,” Schmid said. “I think we had a good chance to get four in a row. We missed our last three PK’s, so that’s something that doesn’t help and certainly if he doesn’t call the one back we’re still taking PK’s maybe right now. It is what it is, so we have to move on and we go forward.”
For SKC, members of the staff and organization were waved onto the stage after the match to receive the trophy with the players and coaches. It was a shared victory for all of Sporting Kansas City.
“I feel like a champion,” Kamara said after the match. “We’ve worked really hard for this moment. It’s something we have to enjoy. I know we have a game on Saturday. We have league play. But it’s a cup. Any time you get a chance to win a championship in anything, you’ve got to enjoy it. And definitely that’s what we’re doing right now. We’re just enjoying it.”