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So Close, Yet… (2017 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Final Recap)

Robert Cole/ALOST
New York defender Michael Murillo (62) and the rest of the Red Bulls defense went to sleep  on Latif Blessing’s headed goal for Sporting Kansas City in the first half of the U.S. Open Cup final on Wednesday. (Robert Cole/ALOST)

 

akoiki-passport2 – by Adesina O. Koiki
A Lot of Sports Talk editor-in-chief

 

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — The agonizing 21-year wait for a major domestic title continues for the New York Red Bulls.

While New York’s season in Major League Soccer has resembled a rollercoaster, there was one aspect of their year that has been borderline dominant. The Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, the century-old league cup competition in American soccer, was one that the Red Bulls and head coach Jesse Marsch took very seriously, especially since their first-round victory in June came at the hands of their hared rivals New York City Football Club. In their home arena, Red Bull Arena, there’s a running tally of the number of goals Bradley Wright-Phillips has scored in and the number of games goalkeeper Luis Robles has played in consecutively in league play.

For fans who like to deride the Red Bulls, there’s another number that will continue to count up, and, after tonight, that number is 7,831: the number of days the franchise has gone without ever winning a major domestic title since its first-ever game.

In the final of the U.S. Open Cup, the Red Bulls fell one goal shot, defeated by Sporting Kansas City 2-1 at Children’s Mercy Park, giving Sporting its fourth U.S. Open Cup trophy. New York’s only chance for a trophy this season will be winning the MLS Cup later in the fall – if the Red Bulls, holding on the sixth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, make the postseason at all.

In the biggest of games, it was the smallest person on the pitch who made the biggest impact and opened the scoring. Forward Latif Blessing, all of 5-foot-3, was able to get in between three Red Bulls defenders in the box to head in an exquisite cross from the right by wingback Graham Zusi in the 25th minute.

Playing with the lead early in the game allowed the Sporting defense to shut down the Red Bulls high-pressing attack, especially in the midfield, where creative players like midfielders Sacha Kljestan and Felipe were not able to set up Wright-Phillips up top with clear-cut chances at the Kansas City goal.

The game was put out of reach in the second half by Hungarian Daniel Salloi, who came on for Blessing late the first half after the latter suffered a leg injury. Salloi caught up to a long ball from midfielder Benny Feilhaber at the top of the New York penalty area, where deputy goalkeeper Ryan Meara whiffed with his clearing attempt as he approached the ball, Salloi and the top of the box. Salloi, almost simultaneously as Meara was missing the ball, poked the ball past Meara, with the ball rolling towards and into the net to double Kansas City’s advantage in the 66th minute.

It took until stoppage time for the Red Bulls to finally break through, with substitute Gonzalo Veron unleashing a shot from outside the box that was too hot for Sporting’s goalkeeper, Tim Melia, who diverted his stop of that shot into the path of the onrushing Wright-Phillips, who deposited the rebound to the roof of the net to cut the lead to 2-1.

New York was not able to score again in the five minutes of stoppage time, as a two-goal deficit ended up becoming too much to overcome.

“Obviously going down 2-0 is different than being down 1-0,” Red Bulls manager Jesse Marsch said, “but even at 2-0, our guys weren’t fazed. They continued to go after the game. Our team pushed. They gave everything they had to each other, to the game. I’m gutted for them. I’m just gutted for the organization and the fans, because it’s a heartbreaking moment.”

The 104th edition of the U.S. Open Cup Final was sold out, and the crowd of 21,523 that joined the hardcore soccer fans in the Midwest included Kansas City sports icons such as Hall of Fame linebacker Willie Lanier and Hall of Fame third baseman George Brett.

“We knew this would be a very difficult match in that they would come and throw everything forward,” said Sporting Kansas City head coach Peter Vermes, who played 33 games for the New York Red Bulls franchise in their inaugural season in 1996, when the team was known as the New York/New Jersey MetroStars. “They have some young guys on their team. So do we. But one of the things about young guys is they have no fear, so they were coming the whole game.”

Vermes, who was the first player to win an MLS Cup as a player and as a manager, has now led Sporting Kansas City to three of its four U.S. Open Cup titles. Marsch and the Red Bulls are still waiting for their first major domestic trophy.

“There are no consolation prizes in finals,” Marsch said, “but I feel like our team played great. I feel like our team went after the game, dictated the pace of the game in many ways – controlled many parts of it. And we were unlucky not to come away with more.”

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