Sporting KC clinches berth in playoffs with 1-0 win over Cincinnati

Second-half substitute Roger Espinoza scored a pivotal goal on Wednesday night as Sporting Kansas City (11-6-3, 36 points) clinched a berth in the MLS Cup Playoffs following a 1-0 road victory over FC Cincinnati (4-13-4, 16 points) at Nippert Stadium in Ohio.

The result guarantees Sporting Kansas City a top-eight finish in the Western Conference and vaults the club back into first place with two scheduled matches remaining in the regular season.

Espinoza’s decisive strike, coupled with two saves from history-making goalkeeper Tim Melia, helped Sporting eclipse their regular season win total from 2019 and improved the team’s record to 5-1-1 during the month of October.

Under the guidance of manager Peter Vermes, Sporting Kansas City has sealed a return to the postseason after their club-record eight-year playoff streak from 2011-2018 ended last year.

Vermes, who has led the club to the 2013 MLS Cup title and three Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup championships, becomes the first head coach in MLS history to reach the playoffs nine times with a single club.

Four days removed from his team’s impressive 4-0 defeat of the Colorado Rapids at Children’s Mercy Park, Vermes made two changes to the Sporting Kansas City lineup as homegrown midfielder Felipe Hernandez replaced Espinoza and forward Khiry Shelton stepped in for the rested Gianluca Busio.

The first 45 minutes unfolded in pedestrian fashion as both sides combined for a single shot on target.

Sporting survived a scare in the early stages, however, when Cincinnati winger Jurgen Locadia burst down the left channel and cut the ball back across the box. Joseph Claude-Gyau had space to unleash a first-time effort, but his shot was scuffed and Siem de Jong’s redirected strike carried well over the crossbar.

Having scored in Saturday’s win over Colorado, striker Alan Pulido manufactured Sporting’s first chance in the 29th minute by charging into the attacking third and spreading a clever pass left to Hernandez, who fended off a challenge from Zico Bailey but was unable to steer his attempt goalward.

On the brink of intermission, Melia etched his name into the record books. Locadia raced onto a well-weighted Haris Medunjanin through ball and pulled the trigger with his left peg, but Melia produced a fine stop at the near post to keep the game scoreless.

In doing so, the 34-year-old passed club legend Tony Meola for first on Sporting’s all-time chart with 508 saves in the regular season.

The visitors showed increased aggression after the restart as Vermes subbed Espinoza and winger Gerso Fernandes into the contest.

Gerso nearly had an instant impact on proceedings, volleying high after Johnny Russell nodded Amadou Dia’s chipped delivery back across the face of goal.

Vermes’ halftime switch paid dividends in the 57th minute when Espinoza fired Sporting into the lead.

The play opened up thanks to an inch-perfect through ball from Kinda that set Pulido free down the left side of the penalty area. The Mexican coolly squared the ball to an open Espinoza, whose left-footed strike beat Cincinnati goalkeeper Spencer Richey.

Espinoza tallied his second goal of the season on the play, while Pulido recorded his team-leading fifth assist.

Cincinnati was awarded a golden opportunity on the hour mark when rookie Frankie Amaya won his team a penalty kick after drawing a foul on Roberto Puncec. VAR Hilario Grajeda prompted referee David Gantar to review the play for a potential handball on Amaya just before the foul took place, but the call stood and de Jong stepped to the spot with intentions of drawing Cincinnati level.

He smacked his attempt off the left post and back out, keeping the hosts off the scoreboard as Melia dropped his remarkable penalty goals conceded percentage to 53.8% — the lowest in MLS history among keepers with at least 10 penalties faced.

The final half-hour packed plenty of action, with Russell almost catching Richey off his line via an audacious long-range free kick in the 65th minute.

A few moments later, Richey sprawled left to parry aside Espinoza’s missile through traffic, denying the Honduran his first MLS brace. The Cincinnati gloveman delivered another stop on 72 minutes, punching away a thunderous Pulido free kick.

With 87 minutes on the clock, and just seconds after Russell’s shot near the top of the box trickled wide, Cincinnati went incredibly close to salvaging a point in the club’s final regular season match at Nippert Stadium.

Substitute forward Brandon Vazquez turned past his defender and unfurled a shot from the right side of the box, but Melia got the slightest of touches on the ball as it caromed off the near post and skipped out of play.

One point ahead of second-place Seattle Sounders FC in the West, Sporting Kansas City will return to Children’s Mercy Park on Sunday to play Minnesota United FC in the club’s final regular season home match at Children’s Mercy Park. Kickoff is set for 6:30 p.m. with tickets available at SeatGeek.com and live coverage on FOX Sports Kansas City, FOX Sports Midwest, FOX Sports GO, ESPN 94.5 FM and La Grande 1340 AM.

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