By Sean Hartnett
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A cauldron of noise greeted the Red Bulls when they entered Children’s Mercy Park ahead of their showpiece U.S. Open Cup final against Sporting Kansas City.
New York was widely considered the underdog in a tough away building, against an experienced side packed with players who have enjoyed a ton of success in major tournaments.
It was going to take all-out commitment and laser-sharp focus for the Red Bulls to lift their first major trophy in club history.
It didn’t happen.
The Red Bulls fell short of their goal as they were unable to match Kansas City’s steely composure. Sporting’s 2-1 victory marked its fourth Open Cup title, while New York’s agonizing quest for any kind of major trophy continues to date to its birth in 1996.
On each goal allowed, the focus was absent from the Red Bulls’ defenders. Half the battle in any championship match is having 11 men mentally switched on. For whatever reason, that crucial element was lacking on Wednesday night, and despite late drama it was a deserved result.
While Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch has performed wonders changing the identity of the club from high-paid, disjoined individuals to a pack of selfless, team-first workers, it hasn’t resulted in major hardware. The long, excruciating wait marches on for a franchise that has a cabinet far too bare for a founding Major League Soccer member.
From the opening whistle, the intensity was maxed-out. In the fourth minute, Kansas City defender Seth Sinovic made a high, reckless challenge on Red Bulls midfielder Tyler Adams, who attempted to control an aerial ball. Sinovic received a yellow card for the ill-advised decision.
After the card was given, Kansas City striker Diego Rubio kicked at Red Bulls midfielder Felipe. Though there was contact, Felipe made a meal of the incident. It was a sign of things to come as both sides attempted to unnerve the opposition and sway calls to their favor.
In the 25th minute, Graham Zusi delivered an excellent cross from the right wing and 5-foot-5 forward Latif Blessing rose above multiple Red Bulls defenders to smash a powerful header past goalkeeper Ryan Meara. Three New York defenders were caught flatfooted, including Michael Murillo, who inexcusably was caught ball watching. The home side gained the lead and the visitors appeared rattled.
Soon after, Blessing unleashed an outstanding long ball in the direction of Gerso, who broke away one-on-one against Meara. The keeper, who had been chosen by Marsch in favor of experienced regular Luis Robles, justified his selection with a crucial save. Meara stood tall and took away the shooting angle.
As the match wore on, Kansas City continued to produce goal-threatening chances and Meara limited the damage. Aaron Long defended with composure and Adams shielded the back line with boundless energy.
Sal Zizzo entered the match in the 66th minute and was immediately at fault for a back-breaking goal that doubled Kansas City’s advantage. Only on the pitch for a matter of seconds, Zizzo lost his concentration and let Daniel Salloli slip behind on a lofted ball over the top of a Red Bulls defense that was far too casual and not on the same page.
In the 83rd minute, Zizzo was presented with an unmarked opportunity in the box. Muhamed Keita delivered a silver platter corner, but Zizzo tamely headed the ball in the wrong direction. It was a nightmarish appearance for a player who has long drawn the ire of the Red Bulls’ faithful.
A 91st-minute Bradley Wright-Phillips goal provided a spark of hope for Red Bulls fans, and late drama followed. Wright-Phillips was impeded by defender Ike Opara in the 96th minute just outside the box. On a last-man back challenge, Opara took out New York’s brilliant striker, who was running clean through in the path of a lofted ball. A screaming Marsch and ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman both saw the challenge as a red card. Opara instead received a yellow. Felipe then skied a free kick from the threatening position and shortly after the final whistle sounded.
The Red Bulls are in the midst of their longest winless drought since June 2015. They are 0-1-4 in their most recent MLS matches, having last recorded a victory on Aug. 15 in the U.S. Open Cup semifinal against FC Cincinnati. Marsch will need to pick up his men and refocus them on finishing strong to ensure a league playoff berth.
New York holds the final spot in the Eastern Conference, three points above Montreal, though the Impact have played one more game.
The margin for error is slim, but the Red Bulls, at the very least, owe a postseason appearance to their championship-starved supporters.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey