Goalkeeper Tim Melia delivered another heroic shootout performance on Wednesday night as Sporting Kansas City ousted the San Jose Earthquakes 4-2 on penalty kicks in the Western Conference Wild Card match in the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs at Children’s Mercy Park.
Following a tense 0-0 draw, Melia made a decisive save on Cristian Espinoza’s spot kick in the first round of penalties to give Sporting an advantage they would not relinquish. Captain Johnny Russell, Erik Thommy, Gadi Kinda and Daniel Salloi all converted their attempts in front of the raucous Members Stand, sealing a dramatic and well-deserved victory for a Sporting outfit that held its opponent to zero shots on target for the first time in club postseason history.
Sporting has prevailed in all five of the club’s penalty shootouts at Children’s Mercy Park, including three times against a San Jose side that has just one win in its last 21 visits to Kansas City since 2004. Additionally, Melia has now won all seven shootouts in his professional career, including a remarkable 5-0 record in a Sporting uniform.
With a momentous playoff triumph under their belts, Sporting advances to Western Conference Round One for a mouthwatering Best-of-3 series against archrival and No. 1 seed St. Louis City SC. The first match will be contested Sunday at CityPark in St. Louis with kickoff slated for 9 p.m. CT and live coverage on FS1 and Apple TV. Game 2 is slated for Nov. 5 at Children’s Mercy Park, with a potential Game 3 scheduled for Nov. 11.
Western Conference Round One (Best-of-3): Sporting KC vs. St. Louis City SC
- Game 1: Sunday, Oct. 29 in STL (9 p.m. CT)
- Game 2: Sunday, Nov. 5 in KC (4 p.m. CT)
- Game 3: Saturday, Nov. 11 in STL, if necessary (5 p.m. CT)
Making his MLS-record 18th postseason appearance as a player or head coach, Manager Peter Vermes deployed the same starting XI from Sporting’s playoff-clinching 3-1 home win over Minnesota United FC on Saturday. Thommy, Jake Davis, Dany Rosero, Logan Ndenbe and Nemanja Radoja all earned their playoff debuts as Sporting fielded an identical lineup from the club’s 3-0 home win over San Jose on Aug. 26.
Vermes’ men threatened inside the first 60 seconds before a single San Jose field player touched the ball. Salloi forced a near-post save from Earthquakes goalkeeper Daniel to culminate the slick passing sequence, then Alan Pulido had a shot deflect marginally wide into the side netting in the third minute.
Davis and Russell combined cleverly on the right side of the box in the 11th minute before the latter’s audacious chip shot from a tight angle was batted over the bar by Daniel. Russell asked further questions of the Earthquakes defense eight minutes later, receiving a pass from Radoja on the right wing and cutting centrally before curling a strike narrowly wide from 20 yards. San Jose continued to weather the early storm and failed to conjure a single scoring attempt of their own in the opening 45 minutes, marking the first time that Sporting has held an opponent to zero shots in the first half of a playoff match.
The second stanza began brightly as both sides exchanged barbs. Sporting went agonizingly close to drawing first blood on 46 minutes when Salloi found an unmarked Pulido with a clever cutback pass to the penalty spot, but the striker’s goal-bound strike was gallantly cleared off the line by center back Rodrigues. At the opposite end, Espinoza picked out an open Carlos Gruezo at the top of the box, but his thumping first-time effort was blocked by Sporting defender Andreu Fontas.
San Jose’s keeper was called to action once more in the 51st minute as Daniel leapt to palm Ndenbe’s long-range piledriver over the bar. Not long later, Radoja’s delectable diagonal pass was chested down by Russell and hammered just high of the target from 15 yards.
The visitors were content to defend deep but did break dangerously on the counter in the 67th minute. Substitute Cade Cowell made a quick impact by darting into the attacking third, weaving into the box and unleashing a shot destined for the left corner, but Fontas intervened crucially by lunging out for a goal-saving block.
Russell had two admirable free kick attempts go begging in the final 20 minutes, curling his first fractionally high and wide and bending his second onto the frame of the near post, much to the disbelief of an increasingly boisterous crowd. Another missed chance came in the 90th minute as Kinda and Pulido connected passes near the endline to tee up Salloi, who was denied on the doorstep by the outstretched Daniel.
The penalty shootout belonged to Sporting, who used the electric energy of a brimming Children’s Mercy Park to their advantage. After Russell expertly buried the opening penalty into the top right corner, Melia dove left to cast aside Espinoza’s effort and pile even more pressure on San Jose.
Pulido had his penalty saved by Daniel, but San Jose was unable to capitalize as Jackson Yueill promptly skied his ensuing shot well over the crossbar. The teams then traded successful penalties on five straight tries, with Thommy, Kinda, Jack Skahan and Carlos Akapo finding the back of the net to leave the door open for Salloi to dispatch the game-winner. Sporting’s homegrown winger made no mistake, firing high into the roof of the net to ignite joyous celebrations inside the stadium and solidify a dream playoff date with St. Louis.
Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs
Western Conference Wild Card Match
Children's Mercy Park | Kansas City, Kansas
Weather: 68 degrees and overcast
Sporting Kansas City
San Jose Earthquakes
Sporting Kansas City: Tim Melia; Jake Davis, Dany Rosero, Andreu Fontas, Logan Ndenbe; Nemanja Radoja (Roger Espinoza 88'), Remi Walter (Gadi Kinda 68'), Erik Thommy; Johnny Russell (C), Alan Pulido, Daniel Salloi
Subs Not Used: John Pulskamp, Robert Castellanos, Robert Voloder, Graham Zusi, Felipe Gutierrez, Willy Agada, Khiry Shelton
San Jose Earthquakes: Daniel; Carlos Akapo, Jonathan Mensah, Rodrigues, Paul Marie (Miguel Trauco 77'); Jackson Yueill (C), Carlos Gruezo (Judson 85'); Cristian Espinoza, Jamiro Monteiro (Niko Tsakiris 85'), Matthew Hoppe (Cade Cowell 57'); Jeremy Ebobisse (Jack Skahan 77')
Subs Not Used: Emmanuel Ochoa, Tanner Beason, Thommy Thompson, Ayo Akinola
Penalty Shootout Summary:
SKC: Johnny Russell (goal) | SKC 1-0
SJ: Cristian Espinoza (saved) | SKC 1-0
SKC: Alan Pulido (saved) | SKC 1-0
SJ: Jackson Yueill (missed) | SKC 1-0
SKC: Erik Thommy (goal) | SKC 2-0
SJ: Jack Skahan (goal) | SKC 2-1
SKC: Gadi Kinda (goal) | SKC 3-1
SJ: Carlos Akapo (goal) | SKC 3-2
SKC: Daniel Salloi (goal) | SKC 4-2
SJ -- Matthew Hoppe (yellow card; unsporting behavior) 55'
SKC -- Andreu Fontas (yellow card; unsporting behavior) 59'
SJ -- Jack Skahan (yellow card; unsporting behavior) 80'
SJ -- Judson (yellow card; unsporting behavior) 87'
Shots on Goal
Referee: Allen Chapman
Assistant Referee: Cameron Blanchard
Assistant Referee: Logan Brown
Fourth Official: Mark Allatin
VAR: Armando Villarreal
AVAR: TJ Zablocki