Children's Mercy Park is Sporting KC's trophy-filled home fortress yet again
Can we call it a dynasty yet? Sporting KC's third Open Cup win in six years might not have come in the type of consecutive run of years that marked Seattle's reign as champions around the turn of the decade -- a run ended, poetically enough, by Sporting KC -- but when added to the 2004 triumph, it takes Sporting into a select group of four-time winners.
Just as importantly, perhaps, this is the third time Peter Vermes has won this trophy in his reign at the club, and when you add it to the 2013 MLS Cup, that comes to four trophies that Vermes has brought to Children's Mercy Park, marking a glittering start to the stadium's short life.
It didn't come without drama, as the Red Bulls, who labored to break down Sporting's redoubtable defense all night, forced a goal back through the otherwise quiet Bradley Wright-Phillips within 10 seconds of the start of six minutes of injury time. But having shaded a frenetic first half, which lived up to the billing of two high-energy teams going at each other, Sporting weathered pressure in the second half and earned what turned out to be the winning goal with a coolly taken counter and finish by Daniel Salloi. They were deserving winners.
Salloi had replaced the scorer of the first goal, Latif Blessing, who left the field injured just before half-time -- one of a trio of Sporting attackers to leave the field hurt. When the champagne hangover wears off, Peter Vermes might still have a logistical headache for the remainder of the season. But on Wednesday night, a packed Children's Mercy Park was thinking of the bigger historical picture.
Four finals at the stadium and four wins for the hosts: That's quite a foundational legacy to mark a stadium's first decade of life. Yet there's a sense, perhaps, that Children's Mercy Park does not receive the credit it deserves. It's natural that in an era when new stadiums are constantly appearing on the MLS skyline the novelty of the new should supersede attention to existing venues. But none of the "longest outdoor bar in North America" at Avaya Stadium, the "purple wall" at Orlando City Stadium or the retractable angular roof at Mercedes-Benz Stadium has seen a trophy lifted in front of it.
Children's Mercy Park has now seen four, all at a stadium that might be modest by the standard of some of the newer additions but is perfectly formed and finished. The finest soccer-specific stadium in the U.S. when it opened in 2011 is still one of the best stadiums in the country, and in terms of trophies won during its lifespan, it is now in a league of its own. When the time comes to write the history of this decade, it deserves to come right back into focus.
The U.S. Open Cup has played a huge part in that. Vermes has always made the tournament a priority, and its strategic significance was borne out in the 2012 win paving the way for the 2013 MLS Cup run. Sporting might have lost to Houston Dynamo in the MLS playoffs for the second successive year, just after winning the 2012 Open Cup, but the institutional memory of the first Cup win was cited by Vermes as a big part of their finally beating Houston at the stadium en route to winning MLS Cup. After all, as Jose Mourinho once pointed out and as Wednesday's opponents could ruefully agree, the first trophy is the hardest one to win.
It showed Wednesday night. Along with Benny Feilhaber playing in his 175th game for the team, the Sporting KC starting lineup featured six veterans of previous Open Cup wins, including Tim Melia in goal, who has never lost an Open Cup game in what is now 13 outings. Their experience showed. Both teams were physical and intense, but Sporting was cooler.
The Red Bulls' best players looked off their games, and horrible defensive lapses undid them at the crucial moments, such as when Michael Murillo inexplicably allowed Blessing, the smallest man on the field, to lose him and head past Ryan Meara. Sporting, meanwhile, even under second-half pressure, always looked capable of looking up and making a telling break. After all, they had the confidence of knowing they'd been there before.
And there they were again, lifting another trophy and getting ready to "paint the wall" again. That wall of honor, detailing Sporting's historic triumphs, is starting to get a little crowded.
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @grahamparkerfc.