Sporting KC wins a U.S. Open Cup that's still not visible enough

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Sporting KC won the U.S. Open Cup, which still not enough people care about. (
Sporting KC won the U.S. Open Cup, which still not enough people care about. (

For the fourth time in six years, Sporting Kansas City lifted one of the top trophies in American soccer. For the fourth time in six years, one of the best-run franchises in Major League Soccer was rewarded for its savvy roster-building and cunning playing style.

Following an MLS Cup title in 2013 and U.S. Open Cup trophies in 2012 and 2015, SKC added another of the latter in a 2-1 win over the New York Red Bulls on Wednesday. That doomed the hard-luck New Jerseyans to yet another piece of silverware almost won but not quite.

The final, a home affair for Sporting, was chaotic from the start, short on real scoring chances and long on heavy tackles. It was an intense affair, decided by a headed goal by a 5-foot-3 player and a single touch from a substitute, almost undone by an injury-time goal.

In the 25th minute, Graham Zusi dropped a cross into the box. Latif Blessing, barely tall enough to look out over the ball, ran away from the defense and headed in with a well-placed nod.

Red Bulls goalkeeper Ryan Meara kept his side in the game for a spell. He denied Gerso one-on-one with a wide-open run, after Blessing sprung him.

And then Meara twice denied SKC on a corner.

In the 66th minute, with the Red Bulls pushing for an equalizer, Daniel Salloi ran in behind the NYRB defense and met a laser-guided Benny Feilhaber pass, caressing it just so to dink it past Meara.

Bradley Wright-Phillips swept in a rebound from Tim Melia’s parry of Gonzalo Veron’s shot in injury time, but, as so very often in Red Bull history, it was too little, too late in a crucial game.

It was a final worthy of the occasion. Not a pretty soccer game, as such, but an entertaining one. One where it felt like there’s something at stake. A sentiment all too rare in the endlessly long Major League Soccer summer.

It also underscores the unexploited value in this century-old tournament. While plenty of fans hope to make it into the genuinely big deal it ought to be, the Open Cup remains hard-pressed to earn traction and recognition. U.S. Soccer is making a more concerted effort to publicize it than in the past. And ESPN has committed to several live broadcasts.

But while the games are generally good, and more and more MLS teams take it seriously, the USOC still isn’t nearly what it could be. Like the FA Cup in England once was — before the excess of money and glory available in the Champions League overshadowed it — the Open Cup could be the second major domestic prize, in addition to the division one league title: MLS Cup.

That’s complicated a bit by the fact that MLS culminates in a playoff, not unlike the USOC, of course. But for a country that has a dire shortage of domestic soccer events, making a bigger deal of this tournament would be wise. After all, the only dates that are currently committed to the calendar in red ink are the MLS Cup Final, the All-Star Game and, every four years, the find round of home World Cup Qualifiers for the men’s national team.

Yet in spite of airing on ESPN2, the ratings for Wednesday’s final will likely be modest. If you aren’t a hardcore American soccer fan, chances are you didn’t even know about this game.

Little was done by way of advertising. And in spite of the valiant efforts of a devoted few, not much is widely known about the background of the only truly historic soccer tournament this country has. How it has existed since the eve of World War I, the 1913-14 season. How the trophy was donated by Thomas Dewar, the whisky baron, in order to help build the American soccer scene.

It doesn’t help that the prize money is only $250,000 and that the runner-up collects a mere $60,000 — likely not even enough to cover the costs of participating in the game. Those numbers are unexciting even to MLS teams. And so is the other prize: a spot in the next year’s CONCACAF Champions League, a tournament that also suffers from a PR problem.

The U.S. Open Cup product is a good one. The games are generally exciting and more of the top teams are taking it seriously. Not because the modest incentives entice them to, but because increasingly deep MLS rosters allow it.

You can’t just wait for people to begin caring. The Open Cup doesn’t generate nearly enough noise to be audible above the American sports din. The PR war is being lost. And this is an old lament, likely not addressed by the next time an anonymous final is played.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.