KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) — Latif Blessing hoisted the U.S. Open Cup as high as he possibly could, which meant the bottom of the silver trophy just about scraped the ground as he pranced around the field.
Short jokes aside, he played plenty big Wednesday night.
The 5-foot-3 dynamo scored midway through the first half, Daniel Salloi added a breakaway goal in the second and Sporting Kansas City held on to beat the New York Red Bulls 2-1 for its fourth title in the nation’s oldest ongoing soccer competition.
“As an organization, this is a very, very valued championship to us,” Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes said. “If I remember correctly, 99 teams started out in this tournament, so for us to hoist the trophy in the knockout stage is pretty impressive for this group.”
The fast-paced match featured plenty of chances for both Major League Soccer clubs, but it was the pint-sized Blessing whose header in the 25th minute put Sporting KC ahead to stay.
The Red Bulls’ Michael Murillo had just won a free kick, but Sporting KC quickly cleared and went on the counter-attack. Graham Zusi got the ball on the wing, and the U.S. national team mainstay curled in a cross that Blessing managed to connect with between four defenders.
Blessing’s goal came shortly after a hard tackle left him lying on the turf in pain. He was only out of the game for a moment, but he was still limping after a hydration break at the 30-minute mark on a hot, muggy night, so Vermes decided to substitute a few minutes later.
It was Salloi who came on and, despite a hip injury that had him questionable to play, he managed to get loose in the 66th minute and put a pass from Benny Feilhaber in the back of the net.
The goal proved crucial when the Red Bulls’ Bradley Wright-Phillips scored in extra time.
“Obviously going down 2-0 is different than being down 1-0,” Red Bulls manager Jesse Marsch said, “but even at 2-0, our guys weren’t fazed. They continued to go after the game.”
“Our team pushed,” he said. “They gave everything they had to each other, to the game. I’m gutted for them. I’m just gutted for the organization and the fans, because it’s a heartbreaking moment.”
Sporting KC won its first Open Cup in 2004, when it was known as the Wizards, and added trophies in 2012 and 2015. That means it has won four major trophies since 2012, counting an MLS title in 2013.
Sporting KC’s midfield celebration was led by the defensive trio of Zusi, Matt Besler and Seth Sinovic. They have been part of the club’s last three Open Cup titles, and they were instrumental in stifling Wright-Phillips, Sacha Kljestan and the Red Bulls’ potent attack for the first 90 minutes.
The sellout crowd of 21,523 that joined in their party included Kansas City sports icons such as Hall of Fame linebacker Willie Lanier and Hall of Fame third baseman George Brett.
“We knew this would be a very difficult match in that they would come and throw everything forward,” Vermes said. “They have some young guys on their team. So do we. But one of the things about young guys is they have no fear, so they were coming the whole game.”
Sporting KC improved to 4-0 in MLS Cup and Open Cup finals under Vermes, who has displayed a remarkable ability to massage and overhaul his roster each year. And a solid performance by goalkeeper Tim Melia, featuring several dazzling second-half saves, made him 11-0-2 in Open Cup games.
Meanwhile, the result was another bitter disappointment in a major competition for the Red Bulls, who lost their only other Open Cup final to the Chicago Fire in 2003.
New York is the only original MLS club that has never captured the MLS Cup or Open Cup.
It was also a bitter defeat for Marsch, who had placed an emphasis on the single-elimination tournament. The Red Bulls manager won four Open Cups during his playing career, and he believed that winning the silver trophy could spur his ascending club onto bigger things.
Instead, it was Blessing and Sporting KC that lifted it into the air.
“There are no consolation prizes in finals,” Marsch said, “but I feel like our team played great. I feel like our team went after the game, dictated the pace of the game in many ways — controlled many parts of it. And we were unlucky not to come away with more.”