Open Cup Final: History, and Kansas City Confront Red Bulls

Photograph by Matt Kremkau

Red Bulls logoThe New York Red Bulls have won two Supporters’ Shields — both within the last four years. But having the best record in Major League Soccer doesn’t seem to count for much.

“Over here the Shield means nothing, I don’t know how, but it means nothing,” said forward Bradley Wright-Phillips, who arrived at the Red Bulls in 2013 and won the Shield that year and again in 2015. “Over here you get no credit for the Shield, so I guess we need a trophy.”

Wright-Phillips will get a chance to accomplish what the otherwise starved New York club has been missing when it travels to Kansas City on Wednesday (coverage begins on ESPN2 at 9 p.m. Eastern) to play Sporting K.C. for the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup crown.

For teams that were both founding MLS clubs, both changed their names and whose records are relatively equal (Kansas City has won three more regular-season games than New York), their fortunes are markedly different.

While the Red Bulls have won just their two Shields, Kansas City has one Shield along with three Open Cup titles and two of the biggest prizes — MLS Cup.

New York has played in all of two finals – and lost them both: the 2003 U.S. Open Cup and the 2008 MLS Cup. It is one of only three of the original 10 members still playing (Tampa Bay folded after the 2001 season) that has not won the Open Cup. Colorado and San Jose/Houston are the others – but then both of those teams have won MLS Cup.

“For the club, at first I joined this club and I said, ‘Yeah, I understand the fans that have been here since the beginning and never lifted a trophy,’ ” the captain and midfielder Sacha Kljestan said. “But now that I have been here for two and a half years, and I’ve gotten to know some of these fans, and I’ve gotten to know people that have worked for this club and have gone this long without winning the U.S. Open Cup or MLS Cup, I fully understand it. It would mean a lot to all of us.”

For some, it’s not the pang of trophy starvation for a club, but also the chance – which doesn’t come to most players in their career – to call oneself a champion.

“It’s everything, it’s why we’re in this business,” Wright-Phillips. “You take away money, everything else, everyone wants to lift the trophy. That proves you’re a good team. You put your name in history. For everyone involved in the club, it would be massive. To not have won a big trophy yet, this is a great opportunity for us.”

And while a month ago, many probably would have picked New York as having a better-than-even chance at winning (winners in eight of nine and scoring nearly three goals a game), now the club is mired in a form of four straight draws and scoring only four goals in its last five matches — including being shut out twice.

Kansas City has lost only two of its last 18 (both losses coming its last five matches), but it hasn’t lost at home all season and not since last September to Vancouver in the CONCACAF Champions League. Eliminate that game and they haven’t lost at home since June 2016.

The slowdown in scoring doesn’t seem to concern anybody on the Red Bulls, even after a 0-0 draw with Philadelphia on Sunday at Red Bull Arena. New York outshot the Union, 16-6, had nearly twice the possession and dominated on corners, 11-2.

“Ties suck. They do,” Coach Jesse Marsch said after Sunday’s draw. “But that’s what you deal with sometimes. You always have a bit of an empty feeling whenever you get a draw. But we’ll be ready. We’re excited. “

Personnel-wise Marsch rested Kljestan, Wright-Phillips and Tyler Adams until midway through the second half. He still won’t have midfielder Daniel Royer, whose hyperextended right knee and bone bruise have kept him out and coincided with the team’s win dearth.

Whatever the Red Bulls deficiencies, Union Coach Jim Curtin didn’t see them on Sunday.

“The thing about soccer, the next game is the most important game,” said Curtin, who’s been to the Open Cup final twice in the past four years. “How many times have they been beaten recently? Not many. So they’re in every game. They’re a great team. They’re going into a final with a chance to lift a trophy and that’s about as good as you can set yourself up.”