Sporting KC moves on to conference finals, 4-2 over Salt Lake

Forward Daniel Salloi knocked the ball past Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando in the closing seconds of the game. (Photo copyright 2018 by Brian Turrel)

by Brian Turrel

Sporting KC finished off Real Salt Lake on Sunday afternoon in the second leg of the Western Conference semifinal match, outscoring Salt Lake 4-2. Sporting won the match 5-3 on aggregate goals, but endured an excruciating second half to earn the victory.

Kansas City started the second half with a 2-0 lead and plenty of momentum from a strong first half, but twice gave up goals that brought RSL within one. Because of the two-leg aggregate format, a 2-2 or 3-3 draw would have advanced Salt Lake over Kansas City to the conference finals against Portland.

With a potential equalizer in sight, Salt Lake threw its offense forward, and prevented Kansas City from keeping possession and running out the game clock. Throughout the last half hour, and most intensely from the 80th minute on, Salt Lake strained the Kansas City defense, coming away with several near-misses, but no game-tying score.

In the seventh minute of stoppage time, KC forward Daniel Salloi broke loose for the game’s last goal, and the referee’s final whistle sounded, drowned out by the roar of the celebrating crowd.

Diego Rubio picked up the game’s first goal in the 14th minute, assisted by Johnny Russell and Felipe Gutierrez. Salloi followed on five minutes later, with Gutierrez again on the assist. Kansas City kept the pressure on through the remainder of the half, and as head coach Peter Vermes put it, “We could have easily went three or four goals still without them even scoring one.”

Salt Lake’s Sebastian Saucedo scored in the 60th minute to make the score 2-1. Kansas City re-established its margin on a penalty kick by Ilie Sanchez, earned when Diego Rubio was brought down on a run near the Salt Lake goal.

Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando tried to disrupt Sanchez by telling him to “make sure you go in one side or the other.” Sanchez placed the ball squarely in the middle of the goal for the score.

After the game, Sanchez talked about the kick as redemption for a miss earlier in the season. He said, “I came from Dallas when I missed that PK. It was right in front our fans that traveled that night, and it was in that corner, and I was so sorry for them. I’m just happy that I could do it tonight and everybody was able to enjoy it.”

The MLS playoffs will take a two-week hiatus to allow for players in international competition, including SKC forward Johnny Russell for Scotland. Sporting KC will face off with the Portland Timbers in the Western Conference final. The first leg will take place in Portland at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 25. The second leg will be at Children’s Mercy Park at 8:30 p.m. Nov. 29.

Johnny Russell signed an autograph for a lookalike after the game. (Photo copyright 2018 by Brian Turrel)
Johnny Russell crossed the ball in front of the Salt Lake goal. (Photo copyright 2018 by Brian Turrel)
Daniel Salloi, surrounded by a cluster of Salt Lake defenders, scored in the 19th minute. (Photo copyright 2018 by Brian Turrel)
Forward Diego Rubio was taken to the ground in the penalty area. (Photo copyright 2018 by Brian Turrel)
Midfielder Ilie Sanchez knocked home a penalty kick in the second half. (Photo copyright 2018 by Brian Turrel)
Midfielder Felipe Gutierrez touched the ball across to Diego Rubio for an assist on the first goal. (Photo copyright 2018 by Brian Turrel)
A squadron of A10 Warthogs from Whiteman Air Force Base flew over Children’s Mercy Park before the game. (Photo copyright 2018 by Brian Turrel)
Forward Yohan Croizet headed the ball to the middle. (Photo copyright 2018 by Brian Turrel)
Daniel Salloi made a run at the Salt Lake goal in the second half. (Photo copyright 2018 by Brian Turrel)

Sporting KC plays in Western Conference semifinal match Sunday in KCK

Children’s Mercy Park will hold its first postseason match in nearly five years when top-seeded Sporting Kansas City and No. 6 seed Real Salt Lake square off Sunday at 2 p.m. in the decisive second leg of the Western Conference Semifinals.

A limited number of tickets for the highly anticipated showdown-a rematch of the 2013 MLS Cup won by Sporting KC on home soil-remain available at SeatGeek.com.

Sunday’s contest will be televised nationally on ESPN and ESPN Deportes, while local radio broadcasts will air on ESPN 94.5 FM and ESPN Deportes KC 1480 AM.

Viewers can catch a live stream via the WatchESPN app and receive additional in-game updates courtesy of Sporting KC Uphoria.

Sporting KC and Real Salt Lake enter the weekend tied 1-1 on aggregate after battling to a stalemate in last Sunday’s first leg at Rio Tinto Stadium.

RSL’s talismanic midfielder Albert Rusnak opened the scoring on 51 minutes with a superb side volley, but Sporting KC forward Diego Rubio bagged a 60th-minute equalizer just 38 seconds after entering the game for his MLS-leading fifth goal as a substitute in 2018.

The first-leg result leaves everything to play for Sunday as a pair of fierce rivals look to secure passage to the Western Conference Championship of the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs.

Led by MLS Coach of the Year candidate Peter Vermes, Sporting KC can advance with a win or a scoreless draw. RSL, meanwhile, can progress with a victory or a draw involving four or more total goals (2-2, 3-3, etc.).

Another 1-1 tie would force two 15-minute periods of extra time in which the away goals tiebreaker no longer counts. If still deadlocked, a penalty shootout will decide which team advances to face the No. 5 seed Portland Timbers in the two-legged conference championship, scheduled for Nov. 25 and 29.

A capacity crowd is expected on Sunday at Children’s Mercy Park, the same site of the 2013 MLS Cup that saw Sporting KC oust Real Salt Lake in a 10-round penalty shootout following a 1-1 draw through extra time.

Vermes’ side was 10-2-5 at home this year and 18-8-8 overall, ascending to first place in the West while setting single-season club records for goals (65), goal difference (+25), assists (69) and shots (583).

Homegrown winger Daniel Salloi led the side with 11 league goals, while Scottish international Johnny Russell became the fourth player in team history to notch 10 goals and 10 assists in the same MLS season.

In addition to setting offensive records, Sporting KC has remained staunch defensively. Their 40 goals allowed were the third-fewest during the regular season as goalkeeper Tim Melia finished with 13 shutouts, second-most in MLS. Right back Graham Zusi was arguably the league’s most effective two-way player, playing every minute of all 34 MLS matches to go with two goals and seven assists.

Anchored by center back pairing Matt Besler and Ike Opara, the Sporting KC defense is likely to be bolstered Sunday by the return of left back Seth Sinovic, who missed the first leg in Utah due to a red card suspension.

Led by second-year head coach Mike Petke, Real Salt Lake will be without Rusnak on Sunday after the Slovakian international picked up his second yellow card of the postseason last weekend against Sporting KC.

The playmaker has amassed 11 goals and seven assists in 2018, but RSL have posted an impressive 4-0-1 MLS record without Rusnak in the lineup this season. Much like Sporting KC, Petke’s squad wields balance and depth in attack: RSL had five players with at least seven league goals in 2018.

Crowned MLS Cup champions in 2009, RSL went just 3-11-3 on the road this year but claimed a momentous 3-2 away win over LAFC in the single-elimination Knockout Round on Nov. 1. Damir Kreilach scored twice in that match and leads the side with 14 MLS goals, having joined RSL from German outfit Union Berlin in February.

Sunday will mark the fifth time Sporting KC and Real Salt Lake have locked horns this season.

Vermes’ men prevailed 2-0 in the U.S. Open Cup Fourth Round on June 6 at Rio Tinto Stadium before suffering a 4-2 regular-season defeat at the same venue four weeks later.

The sides then scrapped to a 1-1 stalemate on Sept. 30 at Children’s Mercy Park, with MLS Rookie of the Year Corey Baird giving RSL an early lead before Opara nodded Sporting KC level in the 52nd minute.

In last weekend’s first-leg draw, Sporting KC were held to a season-low 33.4-percent possession but outshot RSL 12-10 and put six shots on target to RSL’s three. Sporting KC now return to the friendly confines of Children’s Mercy Park, where they have lost just four of their last 50 home games in all competitions (31-4-15) dating back to June of 2016.

Furthermore, Kansas City boasts a 14-2-4 home record in the postseason, with their lone defeats coming in 1997 and 2011.

– Story from Sporting KC

Sporting KC ties Real Salt Lake, 1-1, in first match of Western Conference semifinals

Top-seeded Sporting Kansas City opened the club’s 2018 Audi MLS Cup Playoffs campaign with a 1-1 road result at No. 6 seed Real Salt Lake on Sunday in the first leg of the Western Conference Semifinals.

Chilean international Diego Rubio scored the game-tying goal 39 seconds after entering the match as a second-half substitute in the 60th minute to send the home-and-away series back to Kansas City, Kansas, on level terms.

The decisive second leg between Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake on Sunday, Nov. 11, at Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kansas, will take place at 2 p.m. and will be nationally televised on ESPN, Major League Soccer announced. A limited number of tickets are available via SeatGeek.com.

Playing in altitude amidst chilly conditions at Rio Tinto Stadium, Sporting Kansas City started strong on Sunday and nearly opened the scoring in the ninth minute with the first shot of the match.

Khiry Shelton’s right-footed effort from inside the penalty area forced a diving save from Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando.

The U.S. Men’s National Team veteran, now in the 13th postseason of his 19-year MLS career, was called into action again in the 24th minute and did well to push Felipe Gutierrez’s long-range strike over the crossbar.

The ensuing corner fell to Johnny Russell, who clipped the ball to the six-yard box where Roger Espinoza rose to meet the cross but directed his header off target.

On the opposite end, Sporting Kansas City — with Yohan Croizet making his first start at left back in place of the suspended Seth Sinovic — held the hosts to a single shot on goal in the opening 45 minutes as Tim Melia calmly collected Jefferson Savarino’s attempt from 25 yards out in the 22nd minute.

The scoreless first half — Sporting Kansas City’s sixth straight in the postseason dating back to the 2013 MLS Cup against Real Salt Lake — gave way to an entertaining start to the second half.

In the 51st minute, Real Salt Lake designated player Albert Rusnak combined with Damir Kreilach on a give-and-go at the top of the penalty area to set up a half volley for the breakthrough goal in skillful fashion.

The lead would be shortlived however as Sporting Kansas City responded through Rubio just nine minutes later.

Fresh off the bench, the 25-year-old Rubio covered 50 yards to apply pressure on three different Real Salt Lake players and put himself in prime position to recover a loose ball in the attacking third of the field when Gutierrez deflected a clearance by Rimando.

Rubio took two touches to his right and let loose a perfectly placed strike into the bottom corner of the net for an emphatic equalizer and potentially pivotal away goal in the series.

Of Rubio’s career-best nine goals this season, five have come in substitute appearances which is most of any player in MLS and comes as part of a season-long, team-wide trend. Sporting Kansas City has set a club record with 15 goals scored by substitutes across all competition this season, including a League-leading 13 goals off the bench in MLS matches.

Rubio also becomes only the second player in team history to score a game-tying goal in the MLS Cup Playoffs as a substitute and the first since Matt McKeon did so in the club’s postseason debut back in 1996.

Riding the shift in momentum, Sporting Kansas City soon threatened to take the lead on multiple occasions against a Real Salt Lake side playing on two days rest after producing a Knockout Round upset at LAFC on Thursday night.

Russell tested Rimando in the 64th minute with a dipping shot on target, then darted down the right wing six minutes later to set up Ilie Sanchez with a first-time effort that lifted high of the intended destination.

Russell would next deliver a teasing service into the box on a free kick in the 74th minute that resulted in a pair of scoring chances, the first disrupted by a superb save from Rimando to deny Graham Zusi and the second intercepted by a block from Chinedum Onuoha to keep out Espinoza’s follow-up.

Melia, the reigning MLS Goalkeeper of the Year and a former back-up to Rimando, ensured the scoreline would stand at 1-1 with the game’s final save in the 87th minute to confidently claim a curling right-footed strike from Aaron Herrera.

Next Sunday’s second leg, the fifth meeting of the season between Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake, will raise the stakes with a berth in the Western Conference Championship on the line. A victory for either side will send the winner on to play for the conference crown, while a second straight draw would bring the away goals tiebreaker into play.

– Story from Sporting KC