The fireworks may have filled Children’s Mercy Park tonight before the first kick, but they sure didn’t stop there.
Many people thought both Sporting KC and the New York Red Bulls would come out of the gate with intensity, myself included.
I’m not sure anyone realized just how intense they would be.
From first kick, it was clear that both teams made it a priority to press high and score first. It took all of four minutes for the first card to get dealt out, when Sinovic received a yellow for a tough aerial challenge against Tyler Adams.
If the head referee Hilario Grajeda was hoping the early caution would calm the game down, he was sorely mistaken.
Both sides continued to ping-pong back and forth up and down the field, creating chance after chance. Gerso had a great one-on-one opportunity with Meara, but he opted to try to pass to Benny Feilhaber at the penalty spot, only to have the ball taken away.
Shortly after the Red Bulls marched right down the field to mount their attack, but a diving Tim Melia was able to punch away the ball to keep it 0-0.
Then in the 29th minute a wide-open Latif Blessing found himself with the ball in midfield with room to run. He dropped the ball off to Feilhaber, who found Zusi on the right flank while Latif cut toward the goal. Zusi served up a masterful cross that found the head of the 5’3” Blessing, who calmly headed it into the left side netting to give Sporting KC the 1-0 lead.
If anything, the game only increased in intensity after Latif’s goal. Grajeda enraged both sides with non-calls, but things nearly came to a head when Gerso was trucked at midfield by Aaron Long. The Red Bulls contended it was a 50-50 ball. Sporting KC disagreed.
Matt Besler immediately rushed over to defend his teammate. Felipe came over to share his thoughts with Besler. One thing lead to another, and suddenly Besler and Felipe looked like they were coming to blows before teammates were able to separate them.
Halftime didn’t settle things down either.
The Red Bulls came out strong to start the second half. Bradley Wright-Phillips immediately tested Tim Melia with a strong shot. New York followed up with another shot on goal just a minute later.
All the while the physicality continued.
The Red Bulls desperately wanted an equalizer. Sporting KC was pushing for a second goal to double their lead.
Gerso was forced off 10 minutes into the second half after another hard tackle by the Red Bulls. Tyler Adams received a yellow for a tough tackle against Rubio. Both coaches were screaming at Grajeda.
Then a moment of magic.
Benny Feilhaber had the ball near the sideline at midfield. He saw Daniel Salloi making a run to goal and decided to launch it.
And what a pass it was.
"Their line was very high, probably 40 yards from their goal," Benny Feilhaber said. "I picked my head up hoping someone would make a run, and Daniel read it instantly and I just thought I'd put the ball between their defense and their goalie."
Salloi and Meara both charged toward the ball, but Salloi got there just before the goalkeeper. The young Hungarian showed perfect touch to just sneak the ball around Meara, sending it dribbling into the back of the net.
2-0, Sporting KC in the 67th minute.
"I knew that the goalie was going to come out, so I tried to take a touch around him, and that touch was enough," Salloi said. "It was crazy. I was thinking 'Should I touch I touch it again or not?' But I saw that it was going in, and I was so happy. I went to celebrate and gave kisses to my parents."
Salloi was forced into action earlier than planned when Latif went out with injury late in the first half. “Roger told me before the game someone gets hurt in every final so be ready to come in early," Salloi said.
I don't know if even Roger knew how important those words would be.
The Red Bulls continued to try and push for goals and got a shot off here and there after Salloi's goal, but they were never quite the same.
Bradley Wright-Phillips scored the Red Bulls’ lone goal one minute into the six minutes of extra time, and a free kick in the 96th minute gave New York one last chance to equalize.
It was too little, too late. The Red Bulls' free kick sailed over the net. Tim Melia launched the goal kick, and the final whistle blew.
Salloi’s masterful goal seemed to take the extra bit of intensity out of New York, and Sporting KC controlled the game for most of the final 23 minutes of regulation and stoppage time.
With tonight’s victory, Sporting KC won their fourth U.S. Open Cup in team history, and their fourth championship trophy in the last six years (2012, 2015 and 2017 U.S. Open Cups, 2013 MLS Cup).
"This club, it truly is about winning. It's not just talk." said Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes.
"As an organization, this is a very, very valued championship to us because of all the different levels that can play in this tournament," Vermes continued. "It's pretty unique in sports. To have it for the third time now in our new ownership's tenure is pretty special."
The Red Bulls are still looking for their first U.S. Open Cup or MLS Cup championship in club history.
"There are no consolation prizes in finals," Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch said, "but I feel like our team played great. Our team went after the game, dictated the pace in many ways, controlled many parts of it, and we're unlucky not to come away with more."
"We've got a young group of guys that are really building and coming together in a really good way," Marsch continued. "I thought a lot of them played really well tonight. As heartbreaking as this is, we will use this to build confidence because this is a tough place to play, this is a good team. But we played really, really well tonight."
A near-record 21,523 people (the third largest crowd ever for a Sporting KC match at Children’s Mercy Park and fourth highest U.S. Open Cup final crowd of all time) were on hand for perhaps the most exciting match in Kansas City since the 2013 MLS Cup final.
If anyone had any doubts about Sporting KC’s ambition after selling Dom Dwyer, their top goal scorer over the last four years, this game proved just the opposite. If anything, Sporting KC looked hungrier for success than ever.
"I signed my contract to win championships," said Sporting KC captain Matt Besler. "I didn't just say that. I meant it. This has been a club that consistently competes for championships."
Sporting KC now have seven total combined Supporters’ Shields, U.S. Open Cups and MLS Cups in their trophy case. If they play like they did tonight in the MLS playoffs, Besler and Sporting KC may make it eight come December 7.