FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Sporting Kansas City coach Peter Vermes did his best to place Saturday's 1-0 win at New England in the proper Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup perspective.
A victory four days before tonight's showcase final against Seattle (9:00p.m., GolTV/GolTV Canada) might help the preparations a tad, but it won't alter the landscape too much before one of the biggest matches in club history.
“I think (the win) helps no doubt,” Vermes said after that match. “It’s a positive play, but I really don’t think anything will deter from the excitement on Wednesday night. It’s a totally different world: it’s a cup final. And I think the guys, they sense it now, and I think our venue is going to be a pretty interesting environment, so we're excited about it.”
That excitement stems from an opportunity to take a massive step toward securing a place among the league's elite teams. Sporting's first attempt to enter that stratosphere in the Vermes era ended with a stunning 2-0 home defeat against Houston in the Eastern Conference final last November. The quality of the performances has wavered since that day for most of the normal reasons that usually affect a young side seeking to establish its credentials and for a few issues specific to a side that presses high in a 4-3-3 setup, but the ability and the intent of the group hasn't changed much since that disappointing day.
A cup final against a Seattle side seeking a place in history with its fourth consecutive Open Cup triumph presents the perfect stage for Sporting to turn all of its promise into reality in an intense and intimate setting that ranks among the best in the country.
“Especially being that the stadium was built just last year and our opening game was last year in June, [the Open Cup final is] a big event for us, finally, in that stadium,” Vermes said. “Kansas City has been deserving something like that for a long time and I think now with the advent of the new stadium – and our fan base and everything else – has just increasingly become just a great place to play. I think it’s going to be awesome for that venue.”
Victory over Seattle could also supply the necessary bridge between the promise of the past and the expectation of the future. Only a second Open Cup title – and the boost it could ultimately supply to the lofty dreams of lifting MLS Cup in November – will satisfy one of the league's most ambitious clubs.
Vermes could have used the arrival of a proven finisher during the transfer window to bolster the cause, but the (temporary?) return of influential midfielder Roger Espinoza from the United Kingdom should offer enough in the way of reinforcements for this game. Vermes hinted at a clavicle injury for the Honduran Olympic standout when he spoke with reporters on Tuesday, but it seems altogether unlikely that Espinoza will miss out on the match given his recent displays.
His status – along with the expected inclusion of Aurélien Collin (facial fracture), Chance Myers (groin strain) and C.J. Sapong (right adductor strain) – matters significantly to a side that has lacked a bit of rhythm over the past couple of months. Espinoza isn't the flashiest of players, but his hard running in midfield and his tidy work on and off the ball makes Graham Zusi's life considerably easier. He also strengthens a defensive unit that will come under severe scrutiny from a Sounders FC outfit that scored four times against Los Angeles on Sunday night.
Neither that match at CenturyLink Field nor any of Seattle's three previous Open Cup successes will directly influence the final result tonight. Sounders FC enters the final with far more experience in these sorts of games and perhaps a bit more quality at the sharp end, but Sporting possesses the ability to overcome that particular deficit and secure the club's first piece of silverware.
It is, as Vermes stated, a cup final. All of the associated factors may play their part in the buildup and the drama of the night itself, but the final result will rest upon how the players cope with the occasion. Sporting's assortment of current and future stars can only hope that this night will mark their next significant step toward the pinnacle of MLS.
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