A second Open Cup and a third trophy in four years may or may not make Sporting Kansas City a dynasty, but it is a step in that direction. This championship, even more than the others of recent years, feels like it could grow into something more than a single trophy. Maybe not something more right away, but something more down the road. The first two trophies in Sporting's recent run came in the friendly confines of Sporting Park. Winning at home is hard, but winning on the road is even harder. Philadelphia isn't the roughest place to play in MLS, but it's not a walk in the park, either. For the players, coaches, and staff to figure out how to win a cup on the road is a step toward claiming a spot among the soccer elites in America.
Not to make light of the challenges we faced in prior years, but the Open Cup in 2012 and the MLS Cup in 2013 were won by Sporting teams in great form. In both instances, those teams were playing at their peaks as the championship match approached. Neither of those teams were apt to suffer the kind of beatdowns by lesser opponents that this year's Sporting KC team has received.
Those past championships featured injuries and absences--Lawrence Olum had to play in both of those matches, once for Collin and once for Rosell--but nothing like this season's team. Sporting started the Open Cup Final without Opara and Espinoza, and by the time the match was over we were without Mustivar, Seth, and Chance as well--that's an enormous amount of talent to lose, fully half of our first choice field players. Yet the guys on the field managed to hold on to the draw and then claim the trophy on penalties. This roster needs to improve over the offseason if we want to realistically dream of winning Doubles or Trebles, but the roster is pretty darn capable and tough as it is. Last night proved that.
No one would claim that Sporting has played the best soccer they are capable of since mid-August. We certainly didn't play our best soccer for the Open Cup Final. Last night's victory was an ugly affair. Sporting earned 7 yellow cards on 24 fouls over 120 minutes--that's not elegant soccer. Sporting's lone goal was something to see: a brilliant curler from Nemeth set up by a heroic run from Chance and a classy pass from Zusi. Alas, aside from spectacular saves from Melia, that goal was pretty much the extent of Sporting's match highlights before the penalty shoot-out. Those penalty shots were amazing, though--obviously a product of time and effort in the film room and the training ground. Finding a way to win without the team's best performance is something that has to happen for this or any team to string together championships. No one is at their best every night, so you had bettered know how to make your B-game be good enough if you want to be a sports dynasty. We did that last night. It wasn't always fun to watch, but it is an encouraging development.
Sporting Kansas City isn't a dynasty yet. We need more hardware in our trophy case to make that claim. With another MLS Cup and maybe a Supporters' Shield, we could place ourselves in the same category as the Galaxy. A CONCACAF Champions League title would put Sporting ahead of every other MLS team in history, and handily enough last night's victory qualifies us for that competition.
With the growth Sporting has shown this season, I wouldn't rule out winning any or all of those trophies over the next couple of years. An MLS Cup is a long shot this year, but if Opara and Espinoza can return (and if the rest of the roster is healthy), we have a puncher's chance. The Supporters' Shield is out of reach this year, but if this team can use last night to learn how to grind out wins from what could be draws and draws out of what could be losses, it has a chance at the Shield next season. The Champions League will be a heavy lift for any MLS side because of the salary cap (which is a big part of why no MLS team has ever won it), but an MLS team that can win ugly has a chance against the vastly higher paid Mexican teams--and Sporting is learning how to win ugly.
Of course, the odds are Sporting won't win any of those trophies--the other teams are plenty good, and they are trying, too--but Sporting has a better chance than most other teams. We saw that in Philadelphia.
I don't know what the future will hold, but right now I do know who holds the US Open Cup--and that's enough for me.