Any worries about how Sporting Kansas City ended the MLS regular season were swiftly banished on Saturday night as Manager Peter Vermes’ side claimed a convincing 3-1 win over Vancouver Whitecaps FC in Round One of the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs at Children’s Mercy Park.
Center forward Khiry Shelton, center back Nicolas Isimat-Mirin and right back Graham Zusi all opened their MLS postseason scoring accounts to punctuate an emphatic victory and vault third-seeded Sporting into the Western Conference Semifinals, where they will face either No. 2 seed Seattle Sounders FC or No. 7 seed Real Salt Lake on Sunday at 2 p.m. CT on ABC and ESPN Deportes.
Sporting had entered the 2021 postseason on the heels of three straight losses, dropping from first place to third in the West, but returned to form in emphatic fashion on an electric evening in one of North America’s finest soccer cathedrals.
Saturday’s result, in and of itself, was not entirely surprising. Sporting entered as the odd-on favorite to advance to the next round of the playoffs and did precisely that.
The manner in which Sporting got the job done, however, was something very few fans and pundits—or the Whitecaps, for that matter—could have seen coming.
On paper, this was a clash of styles: Over the course of 2021, Sporting was a team that dominated possession and territory, defending by keeping the ball and creating chances in abundance. Vancouver, meanwhile, would defend deep for extended periods and try to strike on the counter.
The tactical battle that ultimately unfolded on Saturday flipped the projected script on its head. Vermes and Sporting won that battle in a big way, sending head coach Vanni Sartini and the rest of the Whitecaps packing for the winter.
“It was two things,” Vermes said of Sporting’s strategy after the match. “One is we played a little more direct and the other thing too is that we allowed them to try to make the game. It's not easy when you have to make the game and try to break a team down. We know that all too well, and so I thought our guys were really organized defensively and it caused them some issues and it put us on the counter quite a few times.”
With those remarks in mind, let’s take a statistical look at how Sporting employed a more direct approach and dared Vancouver to “make the game.”
Sporting ranked second in MLS during the regular season with an average possession of 55.2%. Vancouver were third-to-last at 46.0%.
On Saturday, Sporting had a season-low 37.3% possession while Vancouver had a season-high 62.7% of the ball. The hosts essentially put the ball in Vancouver’s court, assumed a stout defensive posture and challenged the visitors to make something happen. Simply put, it took the Whitecaps out of their comfort zone.
PASSING ACCURACY AND LONG BALLS
During the regular season, Sporting led MLS with 85.5% passing accuracy with an indirect style of possession, resulting in a high volume of short passes to penetrate methodically toward the opponent’s goal. Moreover, just 11.9% of Sporting’s passes throughout the regular season qualified as long balls.
On Saturday, Sporting were far more direct in possession, using long diagonal passes and balls over the top to counter against the Whitecaps. Two telling statistics highlight this dynamic. First, Sporting finished with just 68% passing accuracy, their second-lowest clip of the year after the 2021 season opener way back in April. Second, over 24% of Sporting’s passes were long balls, more than double the team’s average.
While long balls result in a lower completion rate, Sporting put them to good use on Saturday. Shelton’s opening goal stemmed from a pair of long balls played by Zusi and Daniel Salloi, while Zusi’s long-range thunderbolt in the second half culminated a buildup that saw him send a long ball to Salloi on the left wing.
Sporting ranked last in MLS during the regular season with 13.5 clearances per game. Part of that is merely a result of having more possession. The more a team has the ball, the fewer instances in which they are forced to make defensive clearances. On Saturday, Vermes’ men chocked up 24 clearances, their most in a home match this season and well above the league-high average of 20.8 held by the Portland Timbers.
This generally aligns with Sporting’s possession and passing approach to the game: once possession is won in the defensive third, rather than playing out from the back in an indirect style, Sporting went with no-nonsense clearances up the field in a bid to win the field position battle and continue to make Vancouver play a game they weren’t comfortable playing.
The best part for Sporting? All of this worked to perfection. The hosts still finished with twice as many shots as the Whitecaps, outgunning Vancouver 12-6 and scoring three goals from the run of play. The visitors, on the other hand, could only score from the penalty spot as Cristian Dajome converted his attempt after Luis Martins was penalized for a handball infraction in the 38th minute. Indeed, goalkeeper Tim Melia’s 100th win in a Sporting uniform came without breaking a sweat.
GOAL NO. 1400 IN ALL COMPETITIONS
Shelton landed Sporting’s first punch in the 17th minute on a sneaky-good finish that punctuated a flowing attack involving Salloi and Zusi. The goal served as Sporting’s 1,400th in all competitions all-time and set the hosts on their way to a deserved victory.
Zusi tabbed his seventh career playoff assist on the play, extending his lead atop the club’s all-time chart.
SPORTING KC ALL-TIME ASSIST LEADERS IN MLS CUP PLAYOFFS
- 7 assists | Graham Zusi | 19 playoff appearances
- 4 assists | Chris Klein | 16 playoff appearances
- 4 assists | Preki | 20 playoff appearances
- 3 assists | Felipe Gutierrez | 4 playoff appearances
- 3 assists | Eric Quill | 6 playoff appearances
- 3 assists | Benny Feilhaber | 8 playoff appearances
- 3 assists | Kerry Zavagnin | 23 playoff appearances
After Vancouver leveled terms on Dajome’s penalty, Sporting reclaimed their lead with the final consequential kick of the first half. A chaotic goalmouth scramble saw Isimat-Mirin poke home at close range for his first goal in a Sporting uniform.
On one hand, Isimat-Mirin’s strike resurrected the familiar storyline of a French center back scoring for Sporting in the playoffs. Folk hero Aurelien Collin, of course, bagged three postseason goals during Sporting’s run to the 2013 MLS Cup. Sporting fans will hope this is the start of a similar trend for Isimat, who has returned to full fitness after missing extended periods of 2021 through injury.
By find the back of the net against Vancouver, Isimat also became the ninth player in Kansas City history to score in his MLS playoff debut for the club and only the second to do so at Children’s Mercy Park, following in the footsteps of U.S. international midfielder Gianluca Busio.
SPORTING KC PLAYERS TO SCORE IN MLS POSTSEASON DEBUT
- Mo Johnston | 09/26/1996 | W 3-2 vs. FC Dallas | Conference Semifinals
- Matt McKeon | 09/26/1996 | W 3-2 vs. FC Dallas | Conference Semifinals
- Preki | 0926/1996 | W 3-2 vs. FC Dallas | Conference Semifinals
- Miklos Molnar | 09/16/2000 | W 1-0 vs. Colorado Rapids | Conference Semifinals
- Wolde Harris | 11/04/2003 | T 1-1 at Colorado Rapids | Conference Semifinals
- Teal Bunbury | 10/30/2011 | W 2-0 at Colorado Rapids | Conference Semifinals
- Krisztian Nemeth | 10/29/2015 | T 2-2 at Portland Timbers | First Round
- Gianluca Busio | 11/22/2020 | T 3-3 vs. San Jose Earthquakes | First Round
- Nicolas Isimat-Mirin | 11/20/2021 | W 3-1 vs. Vancouver Whitecaps FC | First Round
Sporting were in the ascendancy on 58 minutes when Zusi uncorked one of the most spectacular goals in Sporting’s playoff history. Settling a Salloi pass 30 yards from goal, the 35-year-old defender sent an absolute thunderbolt into the top left corner to ignite rapturous celebrations across the stadium and push Sporting’s lead to 3-1.
With an assist to go with his wonderstrike, Zusi became the 11th player in Sporting history—and only the second in the last 17 years—to record a goal and an assist in an MLS playoff match.
SPORTING KC PLAYERS WITH GOAL AND ASSIST IN A PLAYOFF MATCH
- Digital Takawira | 10/08/1997 | L 2-3 at Colorado Rapids | Conference Semifinals
- Francisco Gomez | 09/24/2000 | W 3-2 vs. Colorado Rapids | Conference Semifinals
- Matt McKeon | 09/26/2001 | W 3-0 vs. Miami Fusion | Conference Semifinals
- Francisco Gomez | 09/26/2001 | W 3-0 vs. Miami Fusion | Conference Semifinals
- Chris Brown | 09/25/2002 | L 2-3 at LA Galaxy | Conference Semifinals
- Preki | 09/28/2002 | W 4-1 vs. LA Galaxy | Conference Semifinals
- Igor Simutenkov | 11/08/2003 | W 2-0 vs. Colorado Rapids | Conference Semifinals
- Chris Klein | 11/15/2003 | L 2-3 at San Jose Earthquakes | Conference Finals
- Jack Jewsbury | 10/30/2004 | W 3-0 vs. San Jose Earthquakes | Conference Semifinals
- Gianluca Busio | 11/22/2020 | T 3-3 vs. San Jose Earthquakes | First Round
- Graham Zusi | 11/20/2021 | W 3-1 vs. Vancouver Whitecaps FC | First Round
Salloi, meanwhile, tallied his second assist of the day on Zusi’s long-range bomb. The 25-year-old winger is one of only three Sporting players with multiple assists in an MLS playoff match, joining Zusi—he managed the feat in 2011—and now-departed midfielder Felipe Gutierrez.
SPORTING KC PLAYERS WITH TWO ASSISTS IN A PLAYOFF MATCH
- Graham Zusi | 11/02/2011 | W 2-0 vs. Colorado Rapids | Conference Semifinals
- Felipe Gutierrez | 11/11/2018 | W 4-2 vs. Real Salt Lake | Conference Semifinals
- Daniel Salloi | 11/20/2021 | W 3-1 vs. Vancouver Whitecaps FC | First Round
And now the familiar playoff phrase rings clear: onto the next one.
To that end, tickets for the conference semifinal clash on Sunday are now available at SeatGeek.com, with Sporting set to host the match if Real Salt Lake beats Seattle on Tuesday night. If the Sounders prevail, Sporting will visit Seattle next Sunday and all ticket buyers will be automatically refunded for their full purchase price via SeatGeek's Buyer Guarantee.