In just his second year as a head coach in Major League Soccer, Philadelphia Union boss Jim Curtin has looked to others for an example of how to be successful in his newfound profession. Chief among them seems to be his opposite number in Wednesday’s Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Final, Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes.
“As a young coach myself, I aspire to be like [Peter] and to build something like he’s done in Kansas City,” Curtin told reporters on Monday.
The reason for Curtin’s admiration of Vermes’ work with Sporting KC is clear to see. Wednesday’s Final is the Kansas club’s third championship match in four seasons under the former U.S. international and in the previous two – the 2012 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Final and 2013 MLS Cup – SKC lifted two trophies. In that same span, only two MLS managers – Seattle Sounders FC’s Sigi Schmid (64) and LA Galaxy’s Bruce Arena (62) – have won more MLS Regular Season games than the man coming up on the end of his seventh season in charge in Kansas City.
And just as much as the last four seasons have brought loads of wins and good times to the City of Fountains, perhaps the thing Curtin can look most to Vermes for is the fact that it took him some time to get the club to this point. Originally the Technical Director for the Kansas City Wizards, Vermes moved downstairs to take over as interim head coach midway through 2009. The rest of that season and the following year were rough campaigns where little success was had, but it did allow Vermes time to build a system around a core of young talent like Matt Besler, Graham Zusi, Roger Espinoza and Chance Myers, which forms the base of his roster today.
Equipped with a young squad of his own since taking over last season on a similar interim basis, with two U.S. Open Cup Final appearances in two seasons, at least in some ways, Curtin might have the edge on Vermes when comparing their opening tenures at their respective clubs. Whatever the case, Vermes approves of Curtin’s job thus far.
“I know Jim from when we played against each other in the league and obviously he was a very smart player on the field and I think he’s taken the same way in his coaching,” Vermes said of his opposite number. “…those guys, him and Mike Sorber, I know their staff pretty well, they have done a very good job there. Like all our clubs, it takes time to build and they’ve put themselves in a good position.”
Balancing Competitions and Lineups
While Sporting is still in the midst of a down-to-the-wire MLS Cup playoff battle, the Union’s chance at a postseason berth took a significant blow after playing to a 1-1 draw on Saturday night at the New England Revolution. Despite the likely need to take maximum points from the team’s remaining matches, Curtin rested a number of regular players in the match, taking into account a number of factors, including the turf at Gillette Stadium, a shorter field and players in different form.
“There was a lot of discussion and thinking of being fresh for the final – we did have an eye on Wednesday obviously,” Curtin said.
Of course, even a win in New England would still have only brought the Union within six points of the last Eastern Conference playoff spot, so prioritizing the U.S. Open Cup Final – back at PPL Park for a second straight year – made sense. So despite the fact the Union will likely miss the postseason, if they win the Final, Curtin says he’ll consider the season a success.
“Yes. I can confidently say ‘Yes.’ No one in our technical staff or player side is happy with how the regular season went for us. At the same time, we’ve taken this competition seriously. If we do lift our first trophy and bring that to the organization and all that entails in terms of monetary confidence, the experience of playing big games in the Champions League, there’s no way you can’t deem it a success.”
With one day’s less rest, Vermes took a similar approach to Sunday’s home match against Seattle. While a win would have seen his side jump over Sounders FC into third in the Western Conference, Vermes rested Besler, Zusi, and a handful of others. He played U.S. Open Cup Golden Boot leader and team leading scorer Dom Dwyer for the final 16 minutes, of which he only needed five to find the equalizer.
“I think it was much needed,” Besler told reporters on Monday. “One of the things to think about is that it wasn’t necessarily about the rest, it was more about us getting into a rhythm of a normal week. We’ve approached [the Final] how we’ve been approaching it all season long. We’ve had a full week of training, we’ve been doing exactly what we typically do – how we approach training and getting a day off in the middle of the week. It’s basically just what the guys are used to and how we’ve been doing it all season long. The guys will definitely be comfortable in that and we’ll be ready to play.”
Philadelphia Union midfielder Danny Cruz evades a quartet of Sporting KC defenders what the clubs last met in the U.S. Open Cup during the 2012 Semifinals.
The one player on either team that needed the weekend rest the most was Union captain Maurice Edu. Diagnosed with a partially torn left groin in early August, Edu bravely returned to the lineup to play 90 minutes in the side’s 1-0 Semifinal victory against the Chicago Fire on Aug. 12.
“I thought there was no chance I was going to be able to play against Chicago in the semis,” Edu told ussoccer.com, “but it’s a credit to the staff we have here that I was able to get through it. After going through that whole rehab and strengthening process, when the day of the game came, there was no point in thinking about it too much. I was focusing on the fact that I was in the lineup, I was on the pitch, I have to try and get by with it as much as possible.”
The plan worked, but Edu was back on the shelf for the next month before seeing his first action since the Semifinal in the Union’s 2-0 win at Houston on Sept. 20.
“I’m still fighting through the injury,” he continued. “I still have pain and I’m still sore, but I’m doing what I can to try and manage it and make sure I’m in the best place possible for my body to be prepared for the game on Wednesday. This is the biggest game of the year for our club and I’m doing what I can to make sure I’m able to play in that game.”
While Curtin has a decision on whether or not to play his captain in Wednesday’s Final, he’ll also have to decide who to start in goal for the match. A replacement goalkeeper being cup-tied, freak injuries and a dismissal from the team have all played a part in second-year pro John McCarthy being the Union’s starter throughout the team’s four-match U.S. Open Cup run this year.
In that role, McCarthy has at times been stellar, most notably saving four penalties over two shootout wins against the Rochester Rhinos and New York Red Bulls in Fourth Round and Quarterfinals, respectively. The twist comes with the fact that both he and Jamaican international Andre Blake – now returned from a torn right meniscus – have evenly split the Union’s goalkeeping duties in league play since the Open Cup Semifinal.
“It’s a huge decision, it’s one I’ll have to make,” said Curtin. “We gave John and Andre, if you’ve noticed in the past, six games or so, they’ve gotten an equal share, with Andre if you add up his Jamaica games in there. We wanted to get a fair look at both of them. It’s a good situation because both of them have played well.
Hailing back to his own playing career, Curtin recalled his run with the Chicago Fire to the 2006 U.S. Open Cup Final. On the way, he played every minute of the team’s first three matches, before coming on as a stoppage time substitute in the club’s 3-1 win against the LA Galaxy.
“Coaches make decisions to win games and you have one opportunity to win a Final,” he said of his 2006 experience. “We’ll field our top team, we’ll field our best XI guys and the guys we believe can go out there and do a job. Everything during the buildup happens for a reason. Everybody plays a role in terms of getting you to the Final and from there you have to select the best team that will give you a chance to win.”
What it Would Mean?
While a Sporting Kansas City victory on Wednesday night would give the club a rare third trophy in four seasons, Vermes and said his side is approaching the Final the same as every other game this season.
“Obviously it would be an accomplishment, but I guess from our perspective, we’re not thinking of it that way,” the Sporting KC manager said. “We’re just thinking of it as the competition that’s in front of us and the opportunity that’s in front of us. Obviously being able to win another U.S. Open Cup would be fantastic for the team, the club and the fans. That’s the focus.”
And the Champions League berth that’s on the line? That’s not much on their minds either.
“Winning a championship is something that can never be taken away from you and will always bring a group together, no matter how many years have passed,” said Besler. “That’s really what’s at the front of our minds, trying to win a championship and bringing another trophy back to Kansas City. All the other stuff that goes along with it, with the Champions League berth, those are all added bonuses, but honestly right now there hasn’t been a whole lot of thought about that stuff.”
Sporting KC midfielder Graham Zusi prepares to bring the ball down in his teams' 2-0 U.S. Open Cup Semifinal win against Philadelphia in 2012.
On the flip side for the Union, the stakes on Wednesday are two-fold. First is getting redemption for last year’s Final defeat to Seattle.
“The hardest part for us was seeing another team lifting a trophy, parading around on your field in front of your fans,” said Edu. “You obviously have to learn from last year’s game. You have to take what comes from losing in a cup final and I think that’s helped us. Obviously it motivated us to get back to that stage again and hopefully this time we’ve learned something from that.”
“Any good team I’ve been on has gone through one of those difficult moments before they lift a trophy,” added Curtin. “The focus this year has been dialed in on getting back, and now that we’re back, the guys know what they need to do.”
The second is to bring home the club’s first trophy and do it in front of the home crowd that missed out on the celebration in 2014.
“We want to give our fans something to celebrate and be proud of,” said Edu. “We have unbelievable fans, through the ups and downs of the past couple years, they’ve stuck by us, made these long, crazy road trips for us and they’ve always been there in full support. To reward them and show them their support isn’t going unrecognized. To give them a trophy would be an unbelievable way to show them how much we appreciate them.”