Big matches – and make no mistake, Open Cup deniers, Wednesday night’s match for Sporting Kansas City, with a chance to reach the Open Cup final and have a chance to become the first team in the 107 years of the competition to win five titles, is a big match – demand a special focus.
“I say this all the time, and I don’t use it lightly: When I talk about every roll of the ball, I mean every roll of the ball. You have to be locked in. The second you’re not, the other team capitalizes.”
That from Sporting Manager Peter Vermes after Saturday night’s 2-0 MLS regular season loss at home to LAFC. Wednesday night at USL Championship side Sacramento Republic in a Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Semifinal, “Every roll of the ball” will be magnified.
In the 11th minute against LAFC, midfielder Felipe Hernandez defends well while covering in Sporting’s box. Yet, Hernandez unnecessarily clears the ball out of play to give LAFC a corner. The result draws a shaking of the head from veteran Andreu Fontas. In the 56th minute, Hernandez’s fouls an LAFC player, negating a press of LAFC deep in their own end. The quick restart that follows is the beginning of LAFC jumping on top.
“In those moments, too many guys were on the field that played young tonight. And I think that’s the difference in the game,” Vermes concluded.
A team cannot afford miscues, carelessness, and a lack of execution in a one-off, high-stakes cup semifinal, especially against Sacramento Republic.
Republic is not LAFC. But neither are they Union Omaha. Republic is better coached – a team more unified around tactics and movement – than Union Omaha, and their roster is dotted with key players with MLS experience.
Former San Jose Earthquake (and former U.S. U-20 player) Luis Felipe is Sacramento’s reigning Team MVP and Team Defensive MVP. The Brazilian-born midfielder scored once in each of Republic’s last two Open Cup victories over MLS sides San Jose Earthquakes (currently in 13th in the West) and LA Galaxy (currently 7th).
Mexican native Rodrigo “RoRo” Lopez was Republic FC’s first-ever signing in 2013, and he led them to the USL Championship in 2014. The former Chivas USA and Liga MX veteran rejoined Republic FC in 2020 and is now in the club’s top three all-time with 28 goals and added 19 assists in 70 appearances. He leads his side in chances created, by far.
And just in time for the Open Cup semifinal, Sacramento added forward Deshorn Brown. With 79 appearances between Colorado Rapids and D.C. United from 2013 to 2017, including back-to-back 10-goal seasons in 2013 and 2014, the striker brings experience and guile. Brown also has 15 caps and two goals for the Jamaican national team to his credit.
In the Round of 16, the “Quails” – their unofficial nickname adopted by the fans – shutout San Jose 2-0. In the quarterfinal, Republic bested LA Galaxy 2-1. In both, the Quails drew first blood. Momentum is a key player. If Sacramento get on the scoreboard first, their current Open Cup belief manifested via winning a remarkable 16 of 17 home Open Cup matches – including all three against MLS foes – with 54 goals scored (3.18 per match) and 13 goals allowed (0.76 per match) since their inception in 2014 and their 2022 run of outscoring opponents 14-2, which includes four wins at home, will kick in harder, and the harder their raucous and passionate fans will cheer, chant, and heckle. Sacramento is “All in” on the Open Cup… what do they have to lose?
Generally, playing the kids in a regular season like Sporting is navigating is a foundational concept. But in a cup semifinal that now means everything to Sporting Kansas City, soccer brains and the experiential wisdom of playing in high stakes matches and dealing with the dramas and swings that can come with them is critical. Not only is being locked in critical, but also knowing when to slow the pace of the game with the ball to manipulate an opponent and when to go full-bore forward are critical distinctions.
Focusing on what you do, especially what you do well, is multiple times more important than focusing on what your opponent can do. That “us first” mentality is critical to avoid doubt and inspire confidence, no matter if the opponent is “superior” or not.
Sporting has surely done their due diligence and scouted USL Championship side Sacramento Republic, and likely utilized their network of coaching pals who provided them with experiential knowledge of taking on Republic at their nearly 12,000-seat Heart Health Park.
Focusing on what Sporting does well starts with Daniel Salloi and Johnny Russell in the first eleven. In the 6-0 win over Union Omaha in the quarterfinal, it was Salloi who started the scoring, who was a constant threat, and who eventually bagged a brace. Russell is best on right wing, so keep him there. However, I advocate putting Salloi at striker, the #9. Why? Mixing it up a bit gives Sacramento a look they won’t be expecting. And Salloi’s unpredictable movement at striker is likely to disrupt Republic’s defensive organization. Besides, Salloi has a quick release and can finish in the box. On the left wing? Marinos Tzionis. His movement and one-on-one ability combines best with how Salloi plays the game.
The secondary effect of a front three of Tzionis, Salloi, and Russell is that the bench now has Willy Agada to replace Salloi later in the match, moving the Hungarian back to his usual left wing, presenting a whole new dynamic with which Sacramento will have to deal. Another possible iteration here is putting Khiry Shelton in late to either take advantage of his pressing abilities as a striker, or his attacking abilities on the right wing, giving Sacramento yet another wrinkle to iron out.
The youth at midfield and the back was where Sporting crumbled most often Saturday. That is no eternal condemnation. There is only one match that will get Kansas City on the cusp of history, however. I’ll admit, I am stuck over starting Hernandez (cleared to go after head trauma Saturday) or veteran Roger Espinoza at the right-sided #8 opposite 27-year-old Erik Thommy. Is it better to start Hernandez and have the veteran waiting to come on to put his educated stamp on the match? Or is it better to have Espinoza’s acumen and knowledge from the start, with the side benefit of putting the fear of God in Sacramento’s midfield if they hold the ball too long (Hernandez can come on when needed if Roger gets a yellow)? Okay, it’s Espinoza for the start.
Leaving Cam Duke on the bench means Vermes can take advantage of his versatility per match conditions. Remember, Duke has played up front, in the midfield all over, and at right and left back. Let’s be honest, Duke was not good Saturday. He will be driven to make up for it if he gets in this one.
Thommy should be a lock to start. His pace on the dribble, his ability to strike from long range, and his clear understanding of the game are unmatched in our current midfield. He has played just 60 minutes… but this one has “it.” How much he truly has will be seen.
The #6? Remi Walter. No one else.
A mostly youthful backline is not the route Wednesday night. Yes, Logan Ndenbe should start. Next to him, the best Sporting currently has in Fontas and Nicolas Isimat-Mirin. On the right is Graham Zusi. It is truly a no-brainer. Zusi is still the full package, soccer brain included. And did you catch Zeus winning that foot race on the right side to squash a possible runaway 1v1 LAFC attack?
With the additions of Agada and Thommy and a good balance of veterans and youth, Sporting now has the in-match flexibility to keep the opponent off balance, uncomfortable. Sacramento should be the first victim of this newfound capability.
It must be said. After seeing Thommy direct his new team and sliding to keep possession for his new side within the first two minutes and Agada’s passion on the field Saturday night, I am much more impressed with the effort and commitment of Sporting’s newest signees than what I’ve seen from LAFC’s Gareth Bale in his two appearances thus far.
Although both sides will bring forceful intent come Wednesday night at 930pm on ESPN+, Sporting’s quality should win the day. But if Sacramento would happen to jump out on top, hold onto your hats.
But keep in mind “us first” no matter the competition:
In a defining moment before we faced a traditionally superior opponent at their place in a major post-season match, my coaching partner, former Kansas City Comets player and coach Doug McLagan, went over our opponent’s strengths. Then, with a flick of his wrist, he tossed his clipboard to the floor and said, “F*^#’em.” We stepped off the field victorious.