Philadelphia Union aim to follow Sporting KC's path with Open Cup win
The two finalists in this year's U.S. Open Cup final, hosts Philadelphia Union and Sporting Kansas City, have history with a common team: the Seattle Sounders.
The Sounders are the defending champions for a day or so more of course, and it's probably apt that on Sunday, they were lining up against Sporting KC at the venue where their three-time Open Cup winning streak was broken by Peter Vermes' ascendant team in 2012.
That final, which officially ended on penalties, could have been settled in the opening minutes, when then-Sporting striker Kei Kamara indifferently climbed to his feet after a would-be "reducer" of a tackle by Osvaldo Alonso. That set the tone for the game, and it was a very significant moment in the Sporting project.
Having reinspired the fanbase with a newly built stadium, Sporting had begun to fashion a hardworking 4-3-3 identity under Vermes that got its first official reward with that 2012 trophy, which famously inspired keeper Jimmy Nielsen to "paint the wall" of honor at the stadium.
It was a decoration that would soon be joined by an even more significant one -- Sporting went on to win MLS Cup the following year. And while the subsequent battles on multiple fronts (with the CONCACAF Champions League, and international recognition for key players added into the mix) seemed to visibly drain the team in the subsequent months, the self-belief inspired by that first Cup win has never fully gone away.
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On Sunday Vermes was talking about belief again, as he remarked on the 1-1 draw his young players had pulled off against the Sounders. The manager had rested many of his starters with the Open Cup in mind and sent out a side of inexperienced players sprinkled with academy products and draft picks. While they needed a Dom Dwyer goal from off the bench to save a point late, the kids rewarded Vermes' trust as they pressed for a winner at the end of the game and Seattle were relieved to take a point. As he put it, "At some point I've got to make a decision to give some guys some rest.
"On the precipice of the Open Cup, it just seemed like there were some guys who needed it. And some guys are banged up, to be frank. I've always said to the guys to trust in me all the time. I've got to trust in them as well."
On form and recent reputation, Sporting should go into Wednesday's final as favorites, though there's perhaps just a sense around this year's competition that this is Philadelphia's year. Not so much in the determined sloganeering of #unfinishedbusiness, which alludes to their loss to, yes, Seattle, in last year's final, when they were the width of a post from victory at the end of normal time, only for Clint Dempsey to break the deadlock in extra time.
Nor does it come from Philadelphia's consistent proximity to the winners in recent incarnations of this competition. Last year's final loss followed a 2013 defeat to the eventual champions in D.C. United's unlikely run to the title, and in 2012, Sporting's own route to winning the Cup ran through PPL Park in the semifinal round.
But the real reason this feels as though it might be Philadelphia's year is the nature of the team's run to the final: A sequence of unlikely, if not downright miraculous, escapes, have dotted their campaign. Among them, rookie goalkeeper John McCarthy's bailing the team out in a shootout against the United Soccer League's Rochester Rhinos in their first game, and the team's scoring twice with 10 men against D.C. United in the next round. Then there was the wild game at Red Bull Arena that Philadelphia won on penalties, which coach Jim Curtin called his side's greatest win.
That game certainly had the feel of a keynote victory. With the Red Bulls themselves taking the competition seriously for once, and reluctant to concede home advantage during a packed summer schedule (with New York hosting Chelsea the following day, the Union would change the date only if they could change the venue too), the game took place in the humidity of a midweek summer afternoon.
Conor Casey was sent off in the first half, and New York fired in 34 shots in response to a Philadelphia goal that came against the run of play in the 56th minute. The Red Bulls scored just before the final whistle to send the game into extra time and further besiege the Union goal. But McCarthy was again the hero in a penalty shootout, and after that the semifinal against a disappointing Chicago was almost a formality.
The Union have been marketing the final as an opportunity for fans to come and watch the team lift their first trophy. It's tempting fate perhaps but arguably no more than Sporting's own use of "paint the wall" as a call to arms during their own ascendancy.
Perhaps another factor that might tilt this game toward the hosts is that Sporting won't be painting the wall on Wednesday, no matter what. This will be their first game on the road in this year's competition, which after an opening game squeezing past St. Louis has seen them beat Dallas (emphatically), Houston (eventually), and Real Salt Lake (edgily). All those games were at home, where Sporting Park remains one of the stadiums in the league that might be worth a home goal in tight games.
PPL Park has its moments too of course. Philadelphia fans are nothing if not engaged, even if their passions have sometimes drawn them into conflict with the ownership. Earlier this season, I parked my car to attend a game at the stadium and ended up walking alongside the pallbearers of a coffin bearing the legend "Nick Sakiewicz -- serial franchise killer."
Sakiewicz, CEO of the Keystone Group which owns the Union, was a gleeful presence on the sidelines as his team pulled off its unlikely win over his former club in New York (he was involved with MetroStars' sale to the Red Bulls), and would dearly love a first trophy for Philadelphia to help validate his reign in Chester.
Whether that win would kick-start a Union project that seems to have been repeatedly in drifting mode since the wave of fan-inspired enthusiasm that inaugurated it, is a matter for conjecture. Sporting's incarnation under Cliff Illig, Robb Heineman et al always seemed to have the feel of a holistic project -- in which the stadium, team, organization and outreach were all part of a coherent whole and in which success on one front begat success on another.
The 2012 Cup win felt like, and proved to be, part of a continuum of success. A Philadelphia Cup win might end the hunt for a first trophy, but most observers would then be watching carefully to see whether that became a building block for future success, and whether Curtin is given the support he needs to attain that. Or whether the attention given to the Open Cup each year was more of a pursuit of low-hanging fruit by an avowedly modest franchise.
But Philadelphia are there, again, and could be forgiven for just looking for a Cup success in its own right now. And of course, despite Sporting's success, there's nothing inevitable about an Open Cup translating to subsequent MLS Cup success anyway. Just ask Seattle.
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @grahamparkerfc.