A shield is nice, but its no cup. That’s former Red Bulls head coach Mike Petke holding the 2013 Supporters Shield. (Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
In their 22 years of soccer, winning a trophy, the big trophy has been quite elusive for the Red Bulls.
They have come close, but they never had the opportunity to parade and dance around the field with one after the final whistle.
In 2003, the team, then known as the MetroStars, hosted the Lamar Hunt/U.S. Open final at Giants Stadium against the Chicago Fire and fell, 1-0.
In 2008, the Red Bulls took on the Columbus Crew in the MLS Cup final in Carson, Calif. and dropped a 3-1 decision.
Now, on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017, the franchise gets another crack at a brass ring or in this case, the Open Cup trophy when New York faces Sporting Kansas City in Kansas City, Kansas (ESPN2, 9 p.m. ET).
The Red Bulls are the only team of the original 10 franchises never to have lifted an MLS Cup or Open Cup trophy.
So, regardless how it is achieved, whether it will be a beautiful or ugly game, it will be a sweet accomplishment.
“It’s everything. That’s why we’re in this business,” striker Bradley Wright-Phillips said. “Take away money, everything else; everyone wants to lift a trophy. That proves you’re a good team, and that proves … you put your name in history. For everyone involved in the club, that’ll be massive. To not have won a big trophy yet, this is a great opportunity for us.”
Perhaps no one knows better than head coach Jesse Marsch, who played on four Open Cup championship sides — three with the Chicago Fire and one with D.C. United.
“It’s also well understood that the New York Red Bulls, going back to the MetroStars days, have never won a trophy,” Marsch said on a Monday conference call. “There’s been some Supporters’ Shields but there’s never been a trophy, so this is a big opportunity for the club and for this team.”
In contrast to many of the previous Open Cup competitions, the Red Bulls have taken this run quite seriously, using near or full Starting XI’s outside of the goalkeeper. Ryan Meara, who will start, has been the No. 2 keeper behind Luis Robles (168 consecutive MLS matches). On Sunday, Marsch decided to sit several key players who are expected to play Wednesday, including captain and midfielder Sacha Kljestan and Wright-Phillips.
“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.”
In the KC goal will be arguably the best MLS goalkeeper this season, East Islip, N.Y. native Tim Melia.
“Our Open Cup form over the past three years has been pretty good,” he said in a telephone interview Monday. “The opportunity to be in these type of games is something that we work every day for. and its always a goal at the beginning of the season to try to bring a championship, cup or shield whatever might back to the club.”
Melia, who backstopped KC’s 2015 Open Cup final win at the Philadelphia Union, is looking forward to playing this one at home.
“I never had an opportunity to play a final in MLS at home,” he said. “So it’s just going to be a whole new type of cool experience. I won a USL championship in Charleston and we had the opportunity to play at home and it’s definitely a different feel, a different excitement.”
In terms of securing trophies, the franchises are a study in contrasts as Sporting owns four trophies. The club has won two MLS Cups — in 2004 and 2013 and — three Open Cups — in 2004, 2012 2015. Having played in three cup finals the past five years certainly helps, although Vermes felt any team that throw its boot on the field is itching for trouble.
“Experience is great only if you know how to use it,” KC head coach Peter Vermes said in the conference call. “If you don’t know how to use it, it doesn’t mean anything. The fact that we’ve been in a couple of these, as long as we know how to use the experience we’ve gained from it, great. But if we don’t it really doesn’t matter.”
While the Red Bulls have won two Supporters Shield crowns — in 2013 and 2015 — that is not the same as a cup, at least not in the United States.
“Well, over here the Shield means nothing,” Wright-Phillips said. “I don’t know how, but it means nothing, so it’s very different. I guess we’ll see on Wednesday how big of a difference it is if we manage to win. Over here you get no credit for the Shield so I guess we need a trophy, right?”
On Wednesday night, the Red Bulls will have an opportunity to bring one of those elusive trophies home.