By Sean Hartnett
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Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch will have the opportunity to usher in a new era in club history on Wednesday should his squad secure New York’s first U.S. Open Cup championship.
That won’t come easy against an experienced Sporting Kansas City side that will be hosting the final.
“For us, it’s a big opportunity and we’re very excited,” Marsch said during a conference call on Monday. “We haven’t had as many finals and big games to play in as Sporting Kansas City, so we’re really looking forward to a great night. We know the stadium will be full, and the energy, and the crowd will be fantastic, and we know we’ll have a really tough opponent.”
While Sporting KC has captured two MLS Cups and has won the U.S. Open Cup three times, the Red Bulls’ trophy cabinet is comparatively bare. Since joining the MLS as a founding franchise in 1996, the Red Bulls have yet to win a major trophy. Desperate to shed the underachiever tag, Marsch has spent three years shaping the Red Bulls with an all-in mentality and team-first ethos.
“It’s well-understood that the New York Red Bulls — going back to the MetroStars days — have never won a trophy,” Marsch said. “There’s been some Supporters’ Shields, but there’s never been a trophy. This is big opportunity for the club and for this team.”
With attention focused on the final, Marsch fielded a heavily rotated squad during Sunday’s scoreless draw against the Philadelphia Union. Captain Sacha Kljestan entered the match in the 58th minute, while star forward Bradley Wright-Phillips came on in the 66th. New York’s regulars will be fresh and ready to empty their tanks in Wednesday’s showdown at Children’s Mercy Park.
The Red Bulls will be looking to play spoiler against a Kansas City team with a championship pedigree and an expectant home crowd in its corner.
“We know that we’re going up against an experienced, winning team,” Kljestan said. “A bunch of their guys have difference medals — MLS Cup and a U.S. Open Cup in the past few years. So, they have that experience, and, to top it off, they’ve played some of those finals at home already. They’ve kind of eased the pressure off themselves by performing in front of their own fans. So, we know we’re in for a tough game — not only against those guys, but against their home crowd in a difficult match.
“They’re gonna want to win that cup on their home field. We’re gonna try to come in and spoil the party and make some history for our club. We know we’re in for a very tough matchup based on their championship experience,” Kljestan added.
While previous managers prioritized other competitions over the U.S. Open Cup, Marsch understands the history and importance of winning this tournament. He lifted the trophy four times in his playing career, once with DC United and three times with the Chicago Fire.
“When I first came to the Red Bulls, I was aware of the fact that this organization and many of the managers that coached here had not always taken this tournament seriously,” Marsch said. “When you’ve won this tournament, whether as a player or as a coach, you understand the value that it has and you appreciate what it means. When I came here, this was going to be something that we emphasized.
“I think that teams understand that this is a real trophy and this isn’t just a throw-out tournament,” he added. “Anyone who’s won this tournament before, who’s won this trophy, I think values it even more. We’ve used it in many ways. I think it’s actually helped really solidify what we’re doing with our season, and the success we’ve had in this tournament I think has given our team confidence and the belief that they can win in big games. They’ve had moments in this tournament where their backs have been against the wall and they’ve stuck together and found a way to emerge.”
MEARA GETS THE NOD IN GOAL
Marsch had a big call to make ahead of the final — stick with the goalie who got him here or place his trust in an experienced veteran. He has opted to start Ryan Meara between the sticks in the U.S. Open Cup Final. Meara, a former Fordham standout, is being rewarded despite the experience and leadership brought by regular starter Luis Robles.
“Ryan has earned it in how he has played through this tournament,” Marsch said. “This is his tournament to play. He’s going to take us through the Final and to the trophy. We’re all excited for a big opportunity for him and we know he’ll be ready to go.”
It will be a big occasion for Meara, who was in net in wins over four MLS sides in previous tournament rounds before earning an extra-time victory over FC Cincinnati in the semifinals.
There’s a chance that influential attacker Daniel Royer will come off the bench on Wednesday. The 27-year-old Austrian has been missing from the lineup since suffering a knee injury on Aug. 6 against NYCFC. Lately, the Red Bulls have been goal-shy in MLS play. Royer is capable of making a difference with his trickery and eye for goals.
“When we lost Danny, it was unfortunate because he was playing quite well,” Marsch said. “He was just coming off being Player of the Month, scoring a lot of goals. When he was injured, we created a timeframe that we thought would line up with the Open Cup Final. He’s in full training and we’ll have to make a decision. I don’t think he’s ready to start, but I think he’s a consideration for the 18. Then, we just have to evaluate where he’s at physically and how he feels.
“And then, also looking at our international restrictions – you’re only allowed five in this tournament,” Marsch added. “So, you have to then try to get the balance right on which foreigners you’re calling on. The only way that we can really put Danny on the roster is if we feel like he’s 100 percent and ready to go — and I think he’s close.”
The Red Bulls have been a resilient team on the road throughout their run to the final. There won’t be a more dangerous player on the pitch Wednesday than Wright-Phillips. Marsch’s men will employ a high-pressing, energetic style that could cause problems for a Sporting KC backline that includes three defenders over age 30. I see the Red Bulls ending their 22-year wait for a major trophy and sneaking away with a 2-1 victory.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey