My good friend Chris was given a tremendous gift by his father: $100 to buy a ticket for a game in the 1985 I-70 World Series between his beloved Kansas City Royals and the despised St. Louis Cardinals.
Instead, Chris, a cash-starved student at the time, chose to use the gift for other things. He figured George Brett, Frank White, and Company would be in more World Series.
It wasn’t until a loooonnnnggg 29 years that the Royals would make it to the Fall Classic again. Today, Chris shakes his head at his decision.
Chris is a huge soccer fan, soccer coach, and soccer parent, too. And, yes, it’s true that Sporting Kansas City will play in their seventh Cup final in 17 years – the fourth in five years – Wednesday night at Children’s Mercy Park when they host the New York Red Bulls for the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup (8pm CT on espn2), named for the patron saint of the North American Soccer League and Kansas City soccer – Lamar Hunt, the original owner of the Kansas City Wizards that became Sporting Kansas City in 2006. But Chris will be there.
Sporting Kansas City’s top three imports for the 2017 season – forwards Latif Blessing, Gerso Fernandes, and Ilie Sanchez – have been indoctrinated into the culture of importance that the Open Cup tournament holds for Kansas City. They know about Lamar, “Forever our Founder”. They know about “For the Glory of the City”. And they have seen the passion shown by the throngs of fans at the three home Open Cup games in the lead up to the final. They know.
And they know, unlike the young Chris, that this opportunity - to play in a Cup Final - may never come again. It is the first Cup Final for all three. And they are treating it like it could be the last.
“You never know when you will have another opportunity like this,” said Ilie, Sporting’s Spanish import who has become one of the top holding midfielders in MLS. “It’s a Cup that we respect a lot. Every team in this country wants this Cup, so we are really proud and focused on the game on Wednesday.”
Each confessed the importance of winning a final for themselves as a player. It’s every player’s dream to win a Cup. But overwhelmingly, all three talked about the fans and the club and the city that they now call home.
“We feel that we are part of [the fans],” said Ilie.
“Any player wants to win a championship for his club,” said Blessing, the Ghanaian import who scored two goals in the quarterfinal of the tournament against FC Dallas and has electrified fans with his dynamic movement, skill, and quickness up front. “We need to win at all costs. We need to win for the Kansas City fans to be happy.”
When asked how important it was to play the Final in front of the home fans, Gerso, the Guinea-Bissau import who scored a goal in each of the first two games of the tournament and whose speed and skill have added a missing dimension to the Sporting attack, smiled and said, “It couldn’t be better. It’s going to be amazing. It will be crazy.”
“[To win the Final] would mean everything,” he added. “We have won four hard games [all against MLS competition] to be in the final. Now that we are there. We have to win it.”
That must-win attitude parallels that of the three’s manager, Peter Vermes. Vermes knows that every team begins the season wanting to win a championship, that they are valuable commodities to clubs and players, that players sometimes naively think they will get more if they don’t take advantage the first time. That every inch in a final matters. After all, he’s been there as a player and a coach, winning MLS Cup 2000 with the Wizards and every Cup since 2012 as Sporting’s head coach.
“[As a player] you have to understand the work that you put in to get there and not throw that by the wayside and not put the final nail in the coffin by making sure that you are prepared to play in the final,” said Vermes. “It’s not about getting there, it’s about what you do when you get there.”
Fans, players, and coaches alike will be ready for the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Final come Wednesday night. Blessing, who put on a dancing exhibition in front of The Cauldron after Sporting’s recent 3-1 MLS victory over New England because he wanted to make the fans happy, promises that the fans will leave happy.
“We have to do anything possible to win the Final, have to put effort into everything to win the Cup for the Kansas City fans,” said Blessing within his trademark huge smile. “They will be happy Wednesday – we promise that. We are going to make them happy.”