You don’t win anything without suffering. That’s just how it goes, especially in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. Ask Sporting Kansas City’s players when and where the turning point came in last year’s run to their fourth crown and they’ll all tell you: up against FC Dallas in the Quarterfinal. “It was a tough one, a long game,” said SKC coach Peter Vermes about the epic extra-time contest which is about to be replayed in this year’s Round of 16. “And it brought out the best in us.”
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They played a man down for ages, after Seth Sinovic was sent off before the clock hit 15. Players and staff were dealing with the untimely death of an influential and beloved club executive and owner. Ike Opara, Sporting Kansas City’s all-action all-star defender, was kicked in the head, suffered a terrifying seizure on the field and was carted off to an area hospital. It was a game where the players dug down into the deepest darkest soil hoping to find what they needed to get through. And all that while up against then-defending Open Cup champions FC Dallas, who were doing their own deep digging.
(Last year's Open Cup Quarterfinal was full of emotion - coming two days after the death of SKC co-owner Neal Patterson)
Down a Man
“A guy gets a red card early – you see it all the time in soccer – but I’ll tell you it’s not easy to play a man down,” said Roger Espinoza, who pulled on the captain’s armband that night with regular skipper Matt Besler away on international duty. Espinoza did the dirty work. He did the running of two men in midfield to fill the numerical gap. “It happened early with a lot of minutes ahead of us on a hot night. But our mentality was that we wanted to the win the night – for us, for our fans, for Neal. We were able to find extra energy from that. We were playing with a lot of emotion.”
The Neal, Espinoza and his teammates were playing for was Neal Patterson, the co-owner who helped mold Sporting Kansas City into the dynasty of American soccer it is today. Every SKC player – and coach Vermes – wore an armband with Neal printed across it in orange letters. The name was stamped on both halves of the pitch; branded into the grass. Patterson died two days before kick-off and the game itself had the feel of an impromptu memorial for a man who loved the passion and grit of the Open Cup more than most. “He [Patterson] just loved the Open Cup,” said the 51-year-old Vermes, who joined the club as head coach in 2009 after finishing his playing career there in 2002. He’s been the driving force behind SKC’s many recent successes and the development of a culture of winning. “He [Patterson] loved all the different leagues having a chance. He loved the strategy behind getting the line-up right for each individual game. He just had a fondness and real appreciation for the Open Cup.”
(The game between hosts SKC & FC Dallas last year saw three red cards, three goals and 120 minutes of action)
Vermes himself has an enduring passion for the 105-year-old tournament, and he’s won three of them as Sporting KC coach. But that hot day, at home at Children’s Mercy Park, a man down at the half and up against a dangerous opponent, the outlook for progress was murky. “I remember in the locker-room at half-time I just told the guys: ‘we might bend in this game, but we’re not breaking.’” Said Vermes, looking back on the 2017 Open Cup pivot that opened a door to a fourth title for SKC. “We knew it would take everyone being involved. We knew we had to get our concentration right because just digging deep doesn’t always get it done. We needed to use everyone and lean on everyone.”
Help from All Over
And everyone did their part. Espinoza did the heavy lifting in midfield, always walking that tightrope between determined and wild. You get the sense he likes that space. He walked the line and allowed Latif Blessing, the young Ghanaian gem who’s since moved on to LAFC, to score a pair of goals. Benny Feilhaber, who’s since joined Blessing in SoCal, came off the bench and set up two goals in extra time after regulation finished 0-0. Tim Melia, the team’s outstanding goalkeeper, kept the score manageable up until the 101st minute when an FC Dallas red card evened the numbers. Opara went so far as to put his head in where Maxi Urruti’s boots were flashing. The FC Dallas striker missed the ball and caught Opara square on the temple. The big defender hit the ground like a sack of laundry, and suffered a seizure after being knocked out cold (it was later confirmed that he ruptured his right eardrum). There was a hush in the stadium – it was one of those moments when human safety, family and friendship dwarf the game.
(Latif Blessing has since moved on to sunny SoCal & LAFC, but he scored two goals for SKC in last year's Quarterfinal)
But there was still more game. 20 minutes more. “I’ve played a lot of games and been around a lot of years, but I never saw anything like that,” said Espinoza, who was near Opara inside the penalty area where he fell. “It didn’t look like he was breathing. He’s just lying there on the field shaking and that’s your teammate. That’s your friend. He’s not opening his eyes and his jaw is closed up tight. It’s one of the toughest moments I’ve ever had as a player.”
An ambulance took Opara away. As the siren faded in the hot Kansas night, the game began again. It was a Cup game. It needed a winner. This was a turning-point moment in a turning-point game. “I’m wearing the captain’s armband so I’ve got to get the players and look them in the eye and make sure they’re ready to go,” said Espinoza, who reminded his teammates that they were level now. Urruti was shown a second yellow for the reckless overhead kick that caught Opara’s skull instead of the ball. And after all those 101 minutes of playing a man down, there was a chance now. “We’re even again and you get a boost from that. It gives you energy. I started telling the guys ‘come on. Let’s do it for Ike. Let’s do it for Neal and for Seth,’ and it all kind of clicked. I mean we could have crumbled right there, but we didn’t and that’s where it turned.”
Injections of Class, Youth & Pace
Vermes moved the chess pieces from the bench. The injection of Benny Feilhaber in a deep-lying midfield position was a stroke of genius (he set up two goals and forced Javier Morales into a professional foul that saw FC Dallas finish the game with nine men). Young Daniel Salloi came on late, too, to seal the affair at 3-0. These were strokes of managerial genius. But they wouldn’t have mattered if the team, a man down for so long, had capitulated under heavy pressure or the heavy emotions of the night. “There were a million excuses to lose,” said Vermes, a legend in his playing days with the U.S. National Team. “But not us. The guys never let their heads drop. They all performed at a very high level in really difficult circumstances. As a coach, to see that, it’s really satisfying. And even more, it was one of those moments when our culture as a club was on display.”
(Roger Espinoza - right - was SKC's captain and leader in the 2017 Quarterfinal)
There were more tests (and more suffering) to come for Sporting KC, who needed to survive a penalty shootout in the Semifinal against San Jose Earthquakes and were tested mightily in the Final against New York Red Bulls. But to a man, the 2017 champions remember that game against FC Dallas as the true test of what they were made of. And they get to do it again on Saturday, at the same stadium in the same humid June air – but this time in the Round of 16. FC Dallas, who were worthy Open Cup winners in 2016, will remember it their own way…and they’ll have their own score to settle.