By Paul Kennedy
There is a lot to like about Sporting Kansas City. Its ownership group has
built one of MLS's strongest clubs in a market most gave little chance of working. It constructed arguably the neatest soccer stadium in the league, at the forefront for testing and exploiting
technologies aimed at enhancing the in-stadium experience. And most important, a groundswell of support for Sporting KC has produced 68 straight sellouts and counting at Sporting Park.
Sporting KC rewarded the 1,000 or so supporters who made the trip to PPL Park in Chester, Pa., on Wednesday night as it won the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup over the host Philadelphia Union in a shootout
. It was
Sporting KC's third championship in the last four seasons after the 2012 Open Cup and MLS Cup 2013, both also won on penalty kicks. That should not diminish the accomplishment. Sporting Kansas City's
three trophies are more than any other MLS team can claim over the last four seasons.
Wednesday's title is also a reward for Sporting KC's commitment to take the Open Cup seriously. Eight
players who started against Philadelphia were around in the beginning, starting in SKC's opening game of the competition, a 1-0 win over the USL's Saint Louis FC. Peter Vermes
didn't have to put out his first team against third division opposition, nor did the fans in the crowd of 19,298 -- a record for a fourth-round game -- have to show up on a
Tuesday night. But he did, and they did.
“It says a lot about the club," Vermes said after Sporting KC's third Open Cup title. "I’ve said from the beginning I think every team
wants to win this competition. It just depends on how you go about it, what teams you put on the field and how well you do. And our guys, we bought into this. We wanted to win. They put everything
they had into it, and they got it done.”
Some teams concentrate on using secondary competitions -- the Open Cup and Concacaf Champions League -- to give reserves playing time. D.C.
United went undefeated again en route to another quarterfinal berth in the CCL with a team of almost entirely reserves. First-team players played only slightly more prominent roles in the successful
runs of the LA Galaxy and Seattle Sounders into next year's CCL quarterfinals.
Sporting KC played its first team in each of its five Open Cup games. Hungarian international Krisztian Nemeth
's tying goal against the Union marked the fourth straight Open Cup game he scored, becoming just the fourth player since 1995 to tally in four
straight Open Cup matches. Vermes was able to start his first team because he trusted his reserves to fill in the gaps when he needed to call upon them. That's been often in 2015 as injuries have
ravaged SKC. In late May, Vermes could only suit 17 players for an MLS game against New England, and that was only after rookie defender Saad Abdul-Salaam
recalled from the NASL. (For the record, SKC won that night, 4-2.)
After Wednesday's victory, Vermes gave a tip of the hat to the young team he put out on the field Sunday night for a key
MLS match against the surging Sounders. Eight players he used were Homegrown or Generation adidas players, or rookies, and they still pulled out a 1-1 draw against the Sounders. Only one those
players, rookie Saad Abdoul-Salaam
out of Akron, got into Wednesday's game against Philadelphia, but Vermes said they were just as instrumental in Wednesday's
triumph as the veterans he used against the Union.
"We were looking around, couple of coaches and myself," Vermes said of the team's pre-game meeting. "We were saying that what's
tremendous is that we have a young group that played against Seattle this past Sunday and they had a great experience there. They held up to what they needed to do to get us in position for this game,
and make sure everybody was rested, but they earned a tremendous amount of experience today going through this."
Sporting KC is not a big-market team. Eight of its starters against
Philadelphia came out of college. The same number has been in MLS five or more years. Both Matt Besler
and Graham Zusi
have represented the USA at the World Cup and now earn Designated Player salaries. But it wasn't always like that. Besler and Zusi made $47,250 and $34,008 when they entered MLS in 2009. Great
barbecue isn't going to convince Cristiano Ronaldo
or Wayne Rooney
to move to Kansas City. SKC must do things
differently if it expects to continue to win.
That begins with Vermes not letting Sporting KC rest on its laurels.
"We still have a long way to go," he said. "Let's face it,
there are some superpowers in our league that are LA Galaxy, new LA team, Toronto, New Yorks of the world, Montreal, Vancouver, Seattle. Those are some superpowers and we have to be able to do things
maybe a little different because of our market and we need to continue to stay competitive because those guys are getting better all the time."