Just like Sporting Kansas City’s 2017 season, competing in the MLS regular season and the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup tournament opens up storylines that reveal and determine a team’s season. One competition often begets the other, especially when a team makes it to the U.S. Open Cup final like Kansas City has in 2004, 2012, 2015, and now 2017.
And it all began on September 22, 2004, in a 1-0 overtime, golden-goal victory over the Chicago Fire at the then Wizards home ground of Arrowhead Stadium.
Speaking to me in early September of 2004, some two weeks before the U.S. Open Cup Final to be held on the 22nd, veteran goalkeeper Tony Meola stated, “The way we’ve come through all these injuries so far this season right from the start is incredible.”
Indeed. In preseason that year, Preki, the reigning MLS MVP, went down with a left ankle dislocation and fracture. Meola himself had battled Achilles’ tendonitis all season, missing crucial MLS games and Open Cup games in the process. And then on August 14, winger Chris Klein, who was in his prime at age 28 and was on pace for a career year with four goals and eights assists in 19 games, went down with an ACL tear.
Players like second-year professionals Jack Jewsbury (MF) and Davy Arnaud (F, 9g 8a) and goalkeeper Bo Oshonyi (5-2-2 with 5 SO) stepped up big-time, aided by backs Alex Zotinca and Jose Burciaga Jr. and midfielder Francisco Gomez.
Meola’s tendonitis reached an apex before the August 24 Open Cup Semifinal against the San Jose Earthquakes when the 35-year-old injured his Achilles in warmups, forcing Oshonyi to take the start. Meola had played 71 minutes in the first Open Cup match – a 4-1 win over Atlanta Silverbacks of the A-League on July 20 – with Oshonyi taking mop up duties – and the entirety of the August 4 quarterfinal (a 4-0 win over the then Dallas Burn). Yet Oshonyi had taken the reigns in MLS play since August 21 due to Meola’s injury struggles.
But despite hardly training at all in the lead up, Meola started the final against Chicago on September 22. Then stalwart midfielder and now Sporting Kansas City assistant coach Kerry Zavagnin reflected on the choice. “You want to go with your best and your biggest players in that moment. Tony, with what he had done in the 2000 MLS Cup [Meola claimed MVP of that title-winning match] and what he had done with the national team and in multiple seasons in Kansas City, he was our go-to guy, our ace-in-the-hole,” said Zavagnin. “Bo had a great year, and it was fantastic that he was able to come in. But Tony was guy that were very confident in and comfortable in the biggest moments.”
Even though Meola later stated to that he was “really hurting” during the game, he made one save and gained the victory.
However, as the Wizards made their way to the MLS Cup Final that year, the situation came to somewhat of a boil. The Wizards vocal leader, the man who was not afraid to call out teammates, the talisman that all winning teams need, stated to me that “I feel fine. I’m ready to play.” before the final, even though he had not played in a match since the Open Cup Final. And his coach, Bob Gansler, was mum on the topic of who would start in goal.
But it was Oshonyi who got the call in the MLS Cup Final, a game that would have plenty of “biggest moments” in a 3-2 defeat at the hands of DC United. Would a staunch, vocal, and prime-time netminder and leader like Meola have made a difference in a high-pressure, controversy-filled match in which DC United would rally from one down and then take the lead through a clear handball by Alecko Eskandarian that rattled the Wizards’ in the 23rd minute? They would score the game-winner only three minutes later. We will never know.
Any discussion of the U.S. Open Cup must include one of the most impactful supporters of soccer in the United States and Kansas City itself and the original owner of the Kansas City Wizards, Lamar Hunt.
Hunt was present at the semifinal and final matches of the Open Cup that year and was thoroughly thrilled to see his team lift another trophy. And in the champagne soaked locker room after the 2004 victory, he lifted the Dewar Trophy, the hardware given to winner of the tournament named after his legacy, himself.
“The impact that he’s had on the game is much grander than what his everyday presence was,” said Zavagnin. “We were extremely happy in 2000 to win the [MLS] championship for him, having been one of the founding fathers of the league. But to win the Open Cup with his name on it… to be able to hand a trophy over to him was a special feeling for Bob Gansler, for the players, for everybody involved, it was a great memory.”
The passionate and gracious Hunt passed in December 2006. And in 2017, part of the ownership group that bought the team from Hunt in 2006, Neal Patterson, passed this July, as did his wife in September. The team currently wears a patch on their jersey for Patterson and a debt in their hearts to Hunt.
Tradition: Leading the charge
“Within the group [the 2004 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Final] was one that we really wanted to win,” said Zavagnin. “We put a lot of energy into the Open Cup, which we do each and every year.”
Chances to win championships in professional sports don’t come around often for players. One that has a 104-year history even less. One that is named for your club’s founder are rare indeed. Thus, the Wizards, now Sporting Kansas City, take the Open Cup very seriously, often employing their starting 11 in each game and doing all they can to host matches in the tournament. This tournament means a lot, despite most pundits claiming the MLS Cup means more, despite the relative lack of attention given to the event by the casual fan. Or even the soccer fan, as back in 2004. The final that year was in the cavernous, 70,000+ seat Arrowhead Stadium. The official attendance number was recorded as 8,819, but there seemed to be much less in the stands.
“I don’t know if there were 6,000 people there, but for us it meant the world,” said Zavagnin.
Finals always mean the world to players and passionate followers. But now, in part due to MLS, particularly Sporting Kansas City, drawing attention the tournament, there is a different feel. Near sold-out crowds in Kansas City for the 2012 final and surely Wednesday mean more exposure. This year the final will be broadcast on espn2 at 8pm CT.
Leading the charge on the field in 2004 were experienced veterans like Meola, Jimmy Conrad, Nick Garcia, Zavagnin, hometown boy Diego Gutierrez, and Josh Wolff, all who had been in finals before and had or would represent the U.S. National Team at one time or another, some in the World Cup. In 2017, the core is hometown boys Matt Besler and Seth Sinovic, Graham Zusi, Roger Espinoza, and Benny Feilhaber, all who have represented their country (sans Sinovic), some in the World Cup. Veteran tradition.
If Sporting Kansas City wins the final Wednesday evening, they will be just the eighth team in the 104-year history of the Cup to lift the trophy four or more times.
The Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup – A Kansas City tradition.