Recap: Sporting KC sinks Real Salt Lake in 4-2 thriller to book spot in Western Conference Championship

Sporting Kansas City defeated Real Salt Lake in a 4-2 thriller on Sunday at Children’s Mercy Park to claim a 5-3 aggregate victory in the Western Conference Semifinals of the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs.

Diego Rubio opened the scoring, Ilie Sanchez converted a penalty kick and Daniel Salloi bagged a brace as Sporting KC overcame second-half strikes from RSL’s Sebastian Saucedo and Damir Kreilach to win an instant classic between fierce rivals.

Sunday’s momentous triumph propels top-seeded Sporting KC into the two-legged Western Conference Championship, where they will face the No. 5 seed Portland Timbers. Manager Peter Vermes’ side will visit Portland in the first leg on Sunday, Nov. 25, before hosting the decisive return leg on Thursday, Nov. 29, at Children’s Mercy Park. Kickoff times and broadcast details for both matches will be announced in the near term.

PLAYOFF TICKETS: Tickets for the second leg of the Western Conference Championship between Sporting KC and the Portland Timbers, set for Nov. 29 at Children’s Mercy Park, are now on sale to the general public at Season Ticket Members who opted in for their playoff tickets will be messaged directly and can contact their Client Services Executive for questions and more information.

In a breathless battle that unfolded before a national audience on ESPN, Sporting KC tied a club postseason record with four goals and sealed progression to the conference finals for the first time since 2013. The team also improved its all-time home playoff record to 15-2-4, with Salloi becoming the fourth player in team history to score twice in a postseason match.

One week removed from a 1-1 first-leg draw in Utah, Vermes made two changes to his starting lineup as Sporting KC hosted their first home playoff game since defeating RSL on penalties in the 2013 MLS Cup. Left back Seth Sinovic returned from suspension to replace Yohan Croizet, while Rubio stepped in for Khiry Shelton to lead a three-pronged attack alongside Salloi and Johnny Russell.

An electric atmosphere inside Children’s Mercy Park set the tone for Sporting KC’s early dominance. Within the first seven minutes, Salloi volleyed marginally wide off a Felipe Gutierrez cross and RSL midfielder Kyle Beckerman was forced into a goal line clearance to deny Ilie. The near misses merely foreshadowed what would come soon thereafter.

The hosts delivered their first blow in the 14th minute when Russell set Gutierrez free with a brilliantly weighted pass into the attacking third. Through on goal, Gutierrez unselfishly squared the ball to Rubio to smash into a gaping net for his second goal in as many games and his 10th this season across all competitions.

Brimming with confidence, Vermes’ men doubled their advantage five minutes later. Gutierrez was once again the orchestrater, slipping a clever through ball into the path of Salloi who rifled high past RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando for his team-best 14th goal in all competitions and the 20th of his Sporting KC career. RSL remained on the back foot for extended periods as the first half came to a close, then weathered a slew of scares after the restart.

Unsatisfied with his team’s two-goal cushion, Russell drove centrally and delivered a cunning back heel pass to Salloi, but the 22-year-old’s low drive was palmed away by Rimando. In the 55th minute, Russell nearly blew the proverbial roof off Children’s Mercy Park with a mazy run through the box, beating multiple RSL defenders in the process, only to see his close-range shot deflected wide for a corner kick. Gutierrez then tested Rimando with a seething free kick that the RSL gloveman tipped over the crossbar.

The game turned its head on the hour-mark when RSL grabbed a goal back and effectively seized momentum. Diminutive winger Joao Plata cut into the box from the left flank and teed up halftime substitute Sebastian Saucedo, whose one-time effort from the top of the box nestled into the right corner.

Trailing 2-1 going into the final half hour, RSL knew a draw would be enough to win the series on the away goals tiebreaker. Head coach Mike Petke’s side pressured heavily in the late stages, but not before Ilie momentarily restored Sporting KC’s two-goal lead. An impudent Gutierrez through ball played Rubio into space with only Rimando to beat, but the Chilean was chopped to the turf by RSL defender Nedum Onuoha. Referee Jose Carlos Rivero did not hesitate in awarding a penalty, and Ilie’s audacious chip shot down the middle made the score 3-1 on 67 minutes.

RSL responded well and pulled back within a goal in the 72nd minute. Kreilach rose above the rest to head a Plata corner kick low past goalkeeper Tim Melia for his second goal of the postseason and his team-leading 15th of the MLS campaign. The play made for a nail-biting finale as a sold-out crowd watched the Sporting KC backline weather RSL’s late onslaught.

The visitors went remarkably close to equalizing—and taking the series lead via away goals—on two occasions. An 83rd-minute corner kick pin-balled around a crowded box before the ball fell invitingly to Nick Besler, the younger brother of Sporting KC captain Matt Besler, but his low shot fizzed wide and into the side-netting. Seconds later, RSL winger Jefferson Savarino won possession in the penalty area and sent a side-footer inches wide of Melia’s right-hand post.

The spurned opportunity would prove to be the last golden chance for RSL to draw level. Salloi added an insurance goal in the dying embers, sweeping a no-look finish into an empty net to ignite euphoric celebrations on the pitch and in the stands.

Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs
Western Conference Semifinals (Leg 2 of 2)
Sporting KC wins series 5-3 on aggregate

Children's Mercy Park | Kansas City, Kansas
Attendance: 19,918
Weather: 45 degrees and partly cloudy

Sporting KC (1-0-1, No. 1 seed)
Real Salt Lake (0-1-1, No. 6 seed)

Sporting Kansas City: Tim Melia; Graham Zusi, Ike Opara, Matt Besler (C), Seth Sinovic; Ilie Sanchez, Roger Espinoza, Felipe Gutierrez; Johnny Russell (Yohan Croizet 77), Diego Rubio (Khiry Shelton 68), Daniel Salloi
Subs Not Used: Adrian Zendejas, Andreu Fontas, Gianluca Busio, Gerso Fernandes, Krisztian Nemeth

Real Salt Lake: Nick Rimando; Brooks Lennon, Nedum Onuoha, Nick Besler, Aaron Herrera; Kyle Beckerman, Luke Mulholland (Pablo Ruiz 90), Damir Kreilach; Jefferson Savarino, Luis Silva (Sebastian Saucedo 46), Joao Plata
Subs Not Used: Andrew Putna, Danilo Acosta, Tony Beltran, Justen Glad, Sunny

Scoring Summary:
SKC -- Diego Rubio 2 (Felipe Gutierrez 2, Johnny Russell 1) 14
SKC -- Daniel Salloi 1 (Felipe Gutierrez 3) 19
RSL -- Sebastian Saucedo 1 (Joao Plata 1) 60
SKC -- Ilie Sanchez 1 (penalty kick) 67
RSL -- Damir Kreilach 3 (Joao Plata 2) 72
SKC -- Daniel Salloi 2 (unassisted) 97+

Misconduct Summary:
RSL -- Aaron Herrera (yellow card; unsporting behavior) 49
SKC -- Diego Rubio (yellow card; hand ball) 63
RSL -- Kyle Beckerman (yellow card; unsporting behavior) 64
SKC -- Roger Espinoza (yellow card; unsporting behavior) 82

Shots on Goal
Corner Kicks

Referee: Jose Carlos Rivero
Assistant Referee: Brian Dunn
Assistant Referee: Andrew Bigelow
Fourth Official: Chris Penso
VAR: Kevin Stott