Sporting Kansas City (12-14-8, 44 points) punched their ticket to the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs in historic fashion on Saturday, prevailing 3-1 over Minnesota United FC (10-13-11, 41 points) in a thrilling regular season finale at sold-out Children’s Mercy Park.
Captain Johnny Russell bagged a sensational brace, scoring on either side of Remi Walter’s first-half goal, as Sporting became the first club in MLS history to reach the postseason after opening the regular season winless in its first 10 games.
The momentous victory saw Sporting vault to eighth place in the final Western Conference table, setting up a home playoff match against the ninth-seeded San Jose Earthquakes in the single-elimination Wild Card match on Wednesday at Children’s Mercy Park. Kickoff is slated for 8:30 p.m. CT with live coverage on MLS Season Pass via Apple TV. Tickets for the monumental encounter are on sale now at SeatGeek.
Orchestrating Sporting’s unlikely climb into the playoffs is Manager Peter Vermes, who on Saturday took sole possession of third place in MLS history with his 195th regular season coaching win. He has also become one of four head coaches in league annals to make 11 playoff appearances—and the only one to do so with a single club.
Vermes deployed a strong lineup that featured two changes from a 3-2 win at Real Salt Lake on Oct. 7 as Walter and center back Andreu Fontas returned to the fray, replacing Robert Voloder and Felipe Gutierrez, respectively. Veteran goalkeeper Tim Melia hit major milestones by making his 250th career appearance in MLS competitions and claiming his 100th regular season victory, while forward Daniel Salloi—who assisted Sporting’s first two goals—reached a similar juncture by playing his 250th professional match.
The early stages dripped with palpable tension as both teams traded long-range efforts inside the first quarter-hour. Minnesota talisman Emanuel Reynoso forced Melia into a smart diving save, unleashing a strike that caromed off defender Dany Rosero, before Sporting’s Nemanja Radoja had a deflected blast of his own dip marginally over the crossbar. Salloi and Erik Thommy combined brilliantly shortly thereafter, the former clipping a delectable scoop pass into the path of the latter before Thommy’s shot under duress dragged a foot wide from a tight angle.
Sporting seized control by serving the home crowd an emphatic double-dose of euphoria near the half-hour mark. Receiving a pass from Salloi on the right wing, Russell drew first blood with a vintage bit of Scottish showmanship by driving at his defender, cutting centrally into the box and curling a left-footed strike into the far corner. The Sporting skipper has now scored in three consecutive MLS appearances—his first such streak in two years—and his 11 regular season goals during the month of October are the most in club history.
Brimming with momentum and backed by the raucous Children’s Mercy Park faithful, Sporting landed another haymaker in the 31st minute. Isolated on the left channel, Salloi created separation from his marker by striding down the touchline and whipping a delicious cross into the six-yard area for an unmarked Walter to steer into the back of the net. The Frenchman’s sixth career MLS goal gave Salloi two assists on the night and the fourth multi-assist game of his MLS career. Salloi now has 77 goal contributions (45 goals, 32 assists) in MLS regular season play, tying Davy Arnaud for fifth most in Sporting history.
Shaken and stirred, Minnesota launched a feeble bid at grabbing a goal back on the cusp of halftime, but Teemu Pukki’s attempt at the top of the box lacked the pace and direction to beat Melia. The Loons had another effort go begging in the 62nd minute when Reynoso’s 25-yard drive narrowly missed the target.
The hosts were vastly superior over the course of the game and almost went ahead 3-0 in the 65th minute. Breakout right back Jake Davis—who on Saturday became the fourth player in club history to play 2,000 minutes in a regular season before the age of 22—pinged an incisive path to the feet of Russell, who drove goalward and sent a venomous curler inches wide.
Undeterred, Russell buried Sporting’s third goal of the evening on 78 minutes. Substitute Gadi Kinda skipped into the attacking third and played a clever ball into the box for Russell, who was clattered to the turf amidst a slew of Minnesota defenders. Kinda and Alan Pulido retained possession, however, and although an ensuing cross was cut out by Loons center back Michael Boxall, Russell blocked his attempted clearance and tucked the looping ball underneath goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair to ignite wild celebrations inside the stadium. The Scottish winger now has 56 regular season goals in a Sporting uniform, one behind Dom Dwyer for second most in club history.
Minnesota conjured a consolation goal in the 82nd minute on a header from Boxall, but the play did little to revive a firmly beaten Loons side that had its four-year playoff streak come to an end.
Saturday’s result saw Sporting continue its remarkable regular season dominance against Minnesota at Children’s Mercy Park. The club has won all nine regular season home meetings since the Loons entered MLS in 2017, scoring 25 goals and conceding just three.
Vermes’ men will enter the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs as one of the hottest teams in the Western Conference, having won six of their last nine games. Going further back to the start of May, Sporting leads the West in points (41), wins (12) and goals per game (1.88) while ranking second in goal differential (+10). Sporting’s seven losses during that time are also tied for the fewest in the conference.
2023 MLS Regular Season | Match 34
Children's Mercy Park | Kansas City, Kansas
Weather: 62 degrees and clear
Sporting Kansas City (12-14-8, 44 points)
Minnesota United FC (10-13-11, 41 points)
Sporting Kansas City: Tim Melia; Jake Davis, Dany Rosero, Andreu Fontas, Logan Ndenbe; Nemanja Radoja, Remi Walter, Erik Thommy (Gadi Kinda 76'); Johnny Russell (C) (Khiry Shelton 81'), Alan Pulido (Felipe Gutierrez 90+3'), Daniel Salloi
Subs Not Used: John Pulskamp, Robert Castellanos, Robert Voloder, Graham Zusi, Roger Espinoza, Willy Agada
Minnesota United FC: Dayne St. Clair; Zarek Valentin (DJ Taylor 46'), Michael Boxall, Miguel Tapias, Bakaye Dibassy; Wil Trapp (C), Jan Gregus (Kervin Arriaga 46'); Hassani Dotson, Emanuel Reynoso, Franco Fragapane (Bongokuhle Hlongwane 67'); Teemu Pukki
Subs Not Used: Clint Irwin, Devin Padelford, Joseph Rosales, Sang Bin Jeong, Mender Garcia, Ismael Tajouri-Shradi
SKC -- Johnny Russell 7 (Daniel Salloi 8) 28'
SKC -- Remi Walter 2 (Daniel Salloi 9) 31'
SKC -- Johnny Russell 8 (unassisted) 78'
MIN -- Michael Boxall 2 (Emanuel Reynoso 5) 82'
MIN -- Wil Trapp (yellow card; unsporting behavior) 53'
MIN -- DJ Taylor (yellow card; unsporting behavior) 66'
MIN -- Michael Boxall (yellow card; unsporting behaivor) 68'
SKC -- Jake Davis (yellow card; unsporting behaivor) 85'
Shots on Goal
Referee: Ismail Elfath
Assistant Referee: Ian McKay
Assistant Referee: Lyes Arfa
Fourth Official: Nima Saghafi
VAR: Carol Anne Chenard
AVAR: Mike Kampmeinert