CHESTER, Pa. – Sporting KC are champions once again. But as usual, they didn’t make it easy on themselves.
Sporting KC claimed its third trophy in four years in a closely-fought 2015 Lamar Hunt US Open Cup final against the Philadelphia Union, and just like the previous two titles – the 2012 Open Cup and 2013 MLS Cup – it was decided from the penalty spot.
The 7-6 shootout victory was the culmination of 120 minutes of hard-fought soccer that resulted in a 1-1 draw. SKC were on the ropes at times, fighting back from an early deficit and leaning on a seven-save outing from goalkeeper Tim Melia to keep them in the game, but in the end, their experience, backed by a strong final 75 minutes, got them through.
“We did a lot of defending in the first 30 minutes,” Sporting defender Matt Besler told reporters in his postgame press conference. “You have to give credit to Philadelphia. We knew they were going to come out with a lot of energy and they did. They put a lot of pressure on us in our own half and in the 18 yard box.”
Kansas City struggled to keep the ball out of their own half for large periods of the first 45 minutes, noted head coach Peter Vermes in his postgame press conference, also citing Philadelphia’s success in winning second balls as a factor in the home team’s strong first-half performance.
That pressure resulted in the Union’s opening goal as Fabinho’s effort on a 50-50 ball allowed Vincent Nogueira to drop a picture-perfect pass in for a streaking Sebastien Le Toux to score. Nogueira and Le Toux would nearly connect on a similar sequence later in the first half, forcing Melia into one of his five stops in the opening stanza of play, but Sporting would hold on to go into the break just one goal down.
“We didn’t panic. A lot of times when you’re young, you don’t have that experience – you panic,” Vermes said in his postgame press conference. “And then you wind up giving up a second one. There’s a few corner kicks that we had to really batten down the hatches and make sure we weren’t giving anything there away. And the guys were really good at that. … It’s really about composure in those moments.”
Sporting started to move the ball better, push higher up the field and open the game up in the second half, which helped Krisztian Nemeth find the all-important equalizer in the 65th minute.
“I think when you play a final at home, you have this obligation to win, but also entertain,” Vermes noted of the pressure on Philadelphia. “And sometimes you lose yourself a little bit in those two moments and I think we were able to take advantage of that a little bit today and that’s why we got back in the game.”
And, when penalties arrived 55 minutes later, Sporting found themselves in a familiar situations. The experience paid off, as Besler, Graham Zusi and Paulo Nagamura – the three players to take part in all three of Sporting’s shootout victories – all made their kicks, with Nagamura becoming the only player to convert his effort in all three.
“There’s just something about this group of guys and penalty kicks and championship games,” Besler said. “I was a little bit surprised that this game did go into penalty kicks. I thought, ‘We’ve already done it twice,’ I didn’t think we’d do it a third time. But once the ref blew the whistle in the second extra time, we had all been there before, so I think everybody was very comfortable and confident.
“Penalty kicks can go either way, but if you have that little bit of confidence and comfort knowing that you’ve been there, that can make the difference.”