CHESTER, Pa. – Two teams took the field at PPL Park on Wednesday night in search of a place in a championship final, but only one of those teams entered the contest with that sort of experience under its belt. The way Sporting Kansas City showed poise and patience in beating a talented but young Philadelphia Union side removed any doubts about just which of these teams had been there before.
Sporting KC rode an organized defense and opportunistic finishing to post a 2-0 victory and book a place in the club's first final since 2004. Just two weeks after coming to this same stadium and suffering an eye-opening 4-0 loss, Sporting KC returned with resolve and a clear determination to learn from their recent past.
The victory, which came courtesy of second-half goals from Jordan Harvey and Graham Zusi, set up a US Open Cup Final at Livestrong Sporting Park against the three-time defending champion Seattle Sounders.
Wednesday's match at PPL Park wasn't a pretty game by any means, and you can certainly make the case that the Union were the more attractive side. But Sporting learned just eight months ago that style points don't win you big games, only goals and good defending can.
In the 2011 Eastern Conference final, it was KC that was the young and talented home team standing a win away from a championship game. They wilted against a tougher and more experienced Houston Dynamo side that carried out a game plan very similar to the one Sporting adopted against the Union on Wednesday.
"Last year we were immature," said Sporting KC head coach Peter Vermes. "When we went up against Houston they were grinding the game out and trying to pick out the one opportunity they could get. For us it was a huge learning experience and I didn't think we were going to make that mistake again.
"One of the mistakes we made in the Eastern Conference final, and I think it's the same thing that bit (Philadelphia) today, is that when you're playing at home in those big games sometimes you think that you have to go and take the game right away," Vermes said. "Tonight that was the difference. We ground the game out, and took advantage of the things we felt we could take advantage of."
"We didn't really talk about the Eastern Conference final a whole lot, but we definitely learned from it," said Sporting KC defender Matt Besler. "In the Eastern Conference final we were too anxious, and we wanted to go out and win the game right away. Here we showed that we were patient.
"There's 90 minutes to win a game. You don't have to win it in the first 30 minutes. We were patient and I think it was just a good performance by us."
The victory over the Union was the second Open Cup-related triumph by the Sounders in the past week. The first came when SKC outbid the three other semifinalists for the right to host the Open Cup Final if they reached it. Beating out the big-spending Sounders was no easy task, but Kansas City's owners made a winning bid that provided even more impetus for the team to deliver a victory on Wednesday.
"We've got the kind of team right now that has the ability to win at this level so, from an ownership perspective, we just said 'Hey, we've got to try and make this happen and do whatever we can'," said Sporting KC president and co-owner Robb Heinemann. "The great thing for us now is that we have so many fans that come to our games and fill our stadium, so it gives us a different economic profile than we've ever had before.
"It's a group effort. It's the fans, it's the players, and of course we have a great ownership team so all of us came together and said 'Let's go do this'," Heinemann said. "It's going to be incredible for Kansas City just hosting a championship game, and hopefully it's the first of many to come."
For the Philadelphia Union, Wednesday night's defeat was a bitter one--especially for a team that came away from the match feeling like it played well enough to win. The youngest team in MLS didn't perform badly on the night, but never put together the final pass and didn't take advantage of the respect SKC paid the Union by sitting back and playing a defend-and-counter approach.
"That makes me feel good about our team right now, because if we're getting that kind of respect from our opponents then that means we're playing the right way," said Union head coach Hackworth. "Our biggest challenge is to continue to play good soccer and get results.
"I can't be upset with how our team played, or tried to play," Hackworth said. "We're young but we know if we keep playing this way the results will come."
Once the dust settles, the Union should realize that while Sporting KC didn't win with style, the only thing that matters is that they won and reached the US Open Cup final. That is what ultimately matters in big tournaments, because nobody remembers the team that played pretty soccer and lost.
What will be remembered is that this Sporting Kansas City grew up on Wednesday night, and showed that the harsh lessons of eight months ago did not go ignored. Their reward for that maturity is a championship game in their home stadium, and an opportunity to show just how far this club has come in the past year.