In a little more than two weeks, Sporting Kansas City went from the lowest point of their season to – so far – the highest.
And they did it in the same stadium, against the same team.
The difference was in the defense, manager Peter Vermes told MLSsoccer.com by phone after Wednesday night’s 2-0 away victory over the Philadelphia Union in the semifinals of the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup.
“From the first second of the last, I thought the defending by our team … I’d give it a 10,” said Vermes, whose team was embarrassed 4-0 by the Union in a league match at PPL Park on June 23. “It was perfect. We didn’t give up one good chance all night. I thought that the guys were locked in from the first second on.”
Having one of the team’s defensive mainstays available for the revenge match didn’t hurt Kansas City, either.
Sporting, who reached the final for the first time since winning the Cup in 2004, were without center back Matt Besler for the loss in June as he was recovering from an emergency appendectomy. On Wednesday, Besler patrolled the backline with Aurélien Collin (who will miss the final due to yellow-card accumulation) to help Sporting deny the Union any clear looks at goal.
“I thought he and Collin did very well together, especially in the second half,” Vermes said. “We talked about how there were going to be a lot of aerial duels, and I thought they were both very, very strong in the air. That helped us tremendously down the stretch when they got the ball in and around the box.”
That defensive dominance, along with second-half goals from Jacob Peterson and Graham Zusi, has Sporting 90 minutes away from their first silverware since that 2004 Open Cup victory and their first-ever berth in the CONCACAF Champions League.
“I think the guys deserve it – every single group of guys that we’ve used in these games, because we’ve had a major rotation in the roster for each of these games,” said Vermes, who played for Kansas City’s only MLS Cup-winning team in 2000. “What has been pleasing is they have taken it very seriously. They know it’s an opportunity. So it’s a big achievement for this team.”
But the real prize, Vermes said, isn’t in merely reaching the final.
“We’re excited,” he said, “but we’ve still got a lot of work to do to get ready for that next game.”