Latif Blessing is the smallest man on the field, but saying it that way feels like telling half the truth. He is listed at 5-foot-3, which makes him one of the smallest adults in the stadium, and even if you take his word for it that he’s 5-foot-5 he is the height of an average 14-year-old.
Put another way, the man who leaped to head in the first goal in Sporting Kansas City’s 2-1 win over the Red Bulls for the club’s third U.S. Open Cup championship in six years on Wednesday night at Children’s Mercy Park is shorter than half the boys at your local junior high.
If a kid his height wants to play eighth-grade basketball, he probably has to be the point guard, and even then he’d better be an exceptional ball handler.
“And he rises up to get it,” said Sporting teammate Graham Zusi. “Amazing.”
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Blessing is 20 years old, here from Ghana, and if Sporting officials are honest they did not know what they had with him. Usually, guys need a stop between African leagues and MLS. Too much of a jump. Too much unknown.
But Sporting needed speed, particularly with forwards, the demand amplified as the club planned and then executed the sale of All-Star striker Dom Dwyer. Blessing is short, and just 130 pounds, so at times he literally looks like a child against professional defenders who are even 6-foot tall — but, boy, he does have speed.
“That’s my way,” he said. “My way to get the defender scared of me.”
Blessing also has instincts. Those can be improved, but they can’t be created, and Blessing has always been good at feeling the play as it develops. As much as his speed, this is what allowed him to score the goal that started the party.
He took the pass from Matt Besler, played it to Benny Feilhaber, then made his way toward the goal as Feilhaber passed to Zusi in open space on the right side. Zusi hooked the pass around one defender, and over two others.
Blessing timed his jump perfectly, the ball crashing off his forehead at the top of his leap and into the top of the net. He was the leading scorer and MVP of the Ghana Premier League, and says he often scored there on headers. This was his first in six goals here with Sporting.
“We’ve seen him do it in training,” Besler said. “He’s actually one of the best headers on the team.”
Blessing was a critical part of Sporting’s championship, achieved through emotion and guts. Sporting beat Dallas in the quarterfinal, its first game after co-owner Neal Patterson’s death from cancer.
That was one of the most unforgettable games in franchise history, too. Sporting played a man down for 86 minutes, and before the game ended Ike Opara was at a local hospital with a concussion. Blessing scored twice that night, and Sporting advanced.
He said he came here to win cups for Kansas City, but the truth is he did not know this tournament even existed when he joined the team. Surely he assumed the United States had some sort of tournament, but he’d never heard of it, and didn’t know who played.
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Sporting Kansas City defeated the New York Red Bulls on Wednesday to win the 2017 U.S. Open Cup championship. Sam McDowellThe Kansas City Star
They have stories about him, too. In weight-lifting sessions, he could not lift the bar, though it’s unclear if that’s because he wasn’t strong enough or if he merely did not know the exercise.
“I’m so happy,” Blessing said as his teammates sprayed champagne around him. “This is my first championship with the club. I’m so happy. Just so happy.”
In a three-minute conversation, he said some version of those words — I’m so happy — 14 times. He held his phone in his right hand, messaging friends and family back home.
Blessing did not play in the second half. He came off in the 43rd minute, from a leg injury. He tried to run through it, but the pain did not go away. He grabbed his hair and pulled as he walked off the field, the frustration obvious.
At the final whistle, Blessing was the first from the bench on the field to celebrate, limp-running to join his teammates, the tiny man jumping in for a few hugs, wrapping his arms and legs around a few lucky — lucky? — friends.
“I didn’t feel anything,” he said. “I was so happy. This leg, I didn’t feel anything in this leg. No pain. I was going to run.”
He looked for a moment at his phone. And then back up.
“If not for my injury, I was going to score three,” he said. “Yes, if not for my injury, I was going to score a hat trick.”
Honestly, that sounded as likely as him scoring on a header. No more doubts.
After winning the U.S. Open Cup championship, Sporting KC celebrates in the locker room. Allison LongThe Kansas City Star