Countdown to USL Cup: Rangers eager to exorcise demons of 2016 with a win in Louisville

For the second straight year, the Swope Park Rangers are on the precipice of USL Cup glory. The back-to-back Western Conference champions advanced to this exact stage in 2016, only to fall short of a league title in their inaugural season. With unfinished business still at hand, the Rangers will travel to face Louisville City in the 2017 USL Cup Final on Monday, airing live nationally at 8 p.m. CT on ESPNU.

During the week leading up to the championship match, is visiting seven relevant storylines surrounding the biggest game of the United Soccer League season. In Part Six, we catch up with head coach Nikola Popovic as well as goalkeeper Adrian Zendejas and defender Amer Didic, who are eager to bring another trophy back to Kansas City.

For Swope Park Rangers goalkeeper Adrian Zendejas, the 2016 USL Cup Final still lingers in the back of his mind. It’s a memory that stings, but also one that has served as a motivating catalyst for another momentous 2017 campaign in the United Soccer League.

The 6-foot-5 goalkeeper reflected on that very match this week at Swope Soccer Village, just days before the Rangers take another shot at USL Cup glory at Louisville City FC.

“What happened last year,” he said, “was one of the worst feelings I’ve ever had.”

A 5-1 defeat at the hands of New York Red Bulls II in the 2016 championship game was initially humbling, but has since transformed into a rallying point for a Rangers team that believes it has unfinished business.

“The experience of how everything turned out to be last year and how we lost the battle, you really want to send a message out to everyone that we’re not the same team as last year,” said Zendejas, who was heroic in SPR’s Western Conference Final victory over OKC Energy FC last Saturday.

In addition to making four saves in the decisive shootout following a scoreless draw, Zendejas converted the match-winning spot kick in the 11th round of penalties to cue euphoric celebrations at Children’s Mercy Park and send the Rangers back to the USL Cup Final.

Zendejas, who boasts an eye-popping 23-4-6 record as SPR’s starting goalkeeper over the last two seasons, isn’t the only one eager to take that one extra step. Captain Christian Duke, Oumar Ballo, Mark Anthony Gonzalez, Tyler Pasher and Amer Didic all featured in last year’s loss at Red Bull Arena. Didic believes his team is better prepared for the grand occasion this time around.

“This year we have that in the back of our heads — the game that happened last year in New York,” Didic said. “I feel like we definitely know what it takes now in terms of preparation and tactical awareness.”

The Rangers will certainly need to be sound in all areas against a Louisville side that cruised to the top of the Eastern Conference standings before protecting home turf throughout the playoffs, ousting Bethlehem Steel and Rochester Rhinos before edging Red Bulls II in a shootout last Saturday.

Louisville City FC may not have a previous USL Cup Final experience under their belts like the Rangers do, but SPR head coach Nikola Popovic doesn’t believe that necessarily gives his team an edge heading into Monday.

“Having this experience, they can perform in a better way than they performed last year, because they have already felt what (it’s like) to be part of a final,” Popovic said. “But I don’t think this will give us a big advantage against Louisville. I think it’s going to be a very good game between two teams who like to play beautiful football. I think everyone who comes to watch the game will experience a very good match.”

The odds of Monday’s matchup living up to Popovic’s billing are strong, to say the least. Each of SPR’s three playoff games in 2017 have delivered a bevy of drama, and an electric crowd is expected to pack Louisville Slugger Field for the 8 p.m. CT kickoff on ESPNU.

As the Rangers prepare for their second crack at the USL Cup, they also become the first team in league history to make consecutive appearances in the championship game. This, Popovic believes, is a true testament to the club’s tremendous spirit and gritty resolve.

““We have in our DNA a very big heart, a very big belief,” Popovic said. “One of our core values is this work ethic and the capacity to fight until the end in every game. This makes this team a very special team.”

Didic agreed, citing chemistry as the biggest reason SPR has managed to bounce back from last season’s disappointment and return to the USL Cup Final.

“Everyone enjoys being together and seeing each other every day, and everyone is bought in,” Didic said. “I think that’s the number one thing with this team — that every player and everyone on the staff is definitely bought in and committed to the cause.”