Sporting Kansas City earned a pulsating 2-1 win over archrival St. Louis City SC on Sunday at electric Children’s Mercy Park, advancing to the Western Conference semifinals of the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs in historic fashion.
Logan Ndenbe fired Sporting ahead on the stroke of halftime and Daniel Salloi dispatched the match-winner in the 73rd minute as Kansas City swept the Round One Best-of-3 series and became the second No. 8 seed to defeat a No. 1 seed in MLS postseason history. St. Louis salvaged a late consolation goal through Celio Pompeu, but after suffering a 4-1 smackdown on home soil in Game 1 seven days ago and falling short once more on Sunday, the expansion club saw its inaugural campaign end abruptly against a superior Sporting side.
Victorious in five straight MLS matches since the start of October, upstart Sporting will now begin preparation for the single-game conference semifinals on the weekend of Nov. 25-26 against either No. 4 seed Houston Dynamo FC or No. 5 seed Real Salt Lake. Manager Peter Vermes’ men—who will play on the road for the remainder of their 2023 playoff journey—have now progressed to the conference semifinals four times since 2018, tied for the most in MLS.
Children’s Mercy Park welcomed a record-equaling crowd of 21,650 on Sunday and provided the perfect setting for a heavyweight bout between bitter adversaries. Sporting’s lineup featured just one change from an emphatic 4-1 triumph in Game 1 last weekend as captain Johnny Russell returned to the fray in place of Khiry Shelton. The visitors, meanwhile, made three changes along the backline as defenders Kyle Hiebert, Akil Watts and Josh Yaro moved from the bench to the starting XI in addition to target forward Sam Adeniran replacing Aziel Jackson.
Gadi Kinda, an unplayable midfield force who racked up two goals and two assists in the two-game sweep of St. Louis, was involved in Sporting’s first two chances within the first half-hour. The Israeli playmaker had a 25-yard curler deflect marginally wide before sending a long diagonal ball to the equally impressive Salloi, who left Watts in the dust along the touchline before unleashing a shot that Roman Burki saved at the near post.
After a cagey and disjointed start to proceedings, the game opened up nicely with Kinda, Salloi, Pulido and Russell putting St. Louis on the backfoot. Sporting would draw first blood on the final consequential kick of the first half, surging ahead 1-0 off the foot of Ndenbe. An intricately worked attack on the left side of the penalty area saw Salloi slither past a defender and play the ball to Pulido with his back to goal. Pulido then flicked a clever pass into the path of Ndenbe, who finished into the far corner with his weaker right foot. The Belgian left back, who on Sunday made his 50th appearance for Sporting in all competitions, has now scored in back-to-back matches after scoring zero goals in his first 93 professional games. Pulido, meanwhile, has assisted on three of Sporting’s six playoff goals after tabbing three assists during the entire 2023 regular season.
Staring elimination in the face, St. Louis committed numbers forward during a frantic if not exasperating second half. Sporting center back Andreu Fontas did well to block a dangerous shot from Indiana Vassilev in the 50th minute before midfield talisman Eduard Lowen sent an audacious curler inches over the bar from distance shortly thereafter.
Sporting goalkeeper Tim Melia, making his 250th MLS start in the regular season and playoffs combined, was seldom tested on Sunday but produced a crucial save in the 58th minute, dropping low to cast aside a powerful header from Joao Klauss off Vassilev’s teasing cross. Vassilev then had another effort blocked through traffic in the 67th minute, this time off the head of staunch center back Dany Rosero.
Salloi blew the roof off Children’s Mercy Park in the 73rd minute, giving his team a 2-0 advantage on a breathtaking counterattack goal. Springing free down the right channel, Russell slipped a perfectly timed through ball into the path of Kinda, who scurried into the box and nutmegged Watts with a perfect square pass to Salloi at the far post. The homegrown winger applied the finishing touch with a shot that was almost saved by Burki, who got his mitts to the ball but was unable to keep it from crawling over the goal line.
Salloi now has nine career goal contributions (five goals, four assists) in the MLS Cup Playoffs—passing teammate Graham Zusi for second most in club history behind only Preki (12)—and his 22 goal contributions this season (10 goals, 12 assists) are the most on the team in all competitions, one ahead of Pulido (15 goals, six assists). The Hungarian also has a goal and an assist in back-to-back MLS matches for the second time in his career after doing so in August 2021, the year he was an MLS MVP finalist.
St. Louis grabbed a lifeline through Pompeu in the 86th minute. The substitute’s hopeful cross into a crowded penalty area sailed over all heads, beat Melia and caromed into the back of the net off the left post. The fortuitous goal gave St. Louis a fleeting glimmer of hope, but Sporting showcased defensive solidarity from that point onward. Referee Ismail Elfath allowed a whopping 15 minutes of extra time to be played, but the visitors were unable to find a last-gasp equalizer as Sporting joyfully booted their rivals out of the postseason.
Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs
Western Conference Round One Best-of-3 Series | Game 2
Children's Mercy Park | Kansas City, Kansas
Weather: 69 degrees and partly sunny
Sporting Kansas City
St. Louis City SC
Sporting Kansas City: Tim Melia; Jake Davis, Dany Rosero (Robert Castellanos 85'), Andreu Fontas, Logan Ndenbe; Nemanja Radoja, Remi Walter, Gadi Kinda (Roger Espinoza 90+3'); Johnny Russell (C) (Khiry Shelton 90+7'), Alan Pulido (Erik Thommy 85'), Daniel Salloi
Subs Not Used: John Pulskamp, Graham Zusi, Felipe Hernandez, Willy Agada, Marinos Tzionis
St. Louis City SC: Roman Burki (C); Akil Watts (Tomas Ostrak 76'), Tim Parker, Josh Yaro, Kyle Hiebert; Indiana Vassilev (Aziel Jackson 90+2'), Njabulo Blom, Eduard Lowen, Jared Stroud (Niko Gioacchini 65'); Joao Klauss, Sam Adeniran (Celio Pompeu 46')
Subs Not Used: Ben Lundt, Anthony Markanich, Jake Nerwinski, Joakim Nilsson, Nokkvi Thorisson
SKC -- Logan Ndenbe 2 (Alan Pulido 3, Daniel Salloi 2) 45+1'
SKC -- Daniel Salloi 2 (Gadi Kinda 3, Johnny Russell 1) 73'
STL -- Celio Pompeu 1 (Njabulo Blom 1) 86'
STL -- Eduard Lowen (yellow card; unsporting behavior) 23'
STL -- Tim Parker (yellow card; unsporting behavior) 32'
SKC -- Alan Pulido (yellow card; unsporting behavior) 43'
SKC -- Logan Ndenbe (yellow card; unsporting behavior) 69'
SKC -- Dany Rosero (yellow card; unsporting behavior) 81'
STL -- Kyle Hiebert (yellow card; unsporting behavior) 90+6'
SKC -- Roger Espinoza (yellow card; unsporting behavior) 90+14'
Shots on Goal
Referee: Ismail Elfath
Assistant Referee: Micheal Barwegen
Assistant Referee: Lyes Arfa
Fourth Official: Guido Gonzales Jr.
VAR: Michael Radchuk
AVAR: Jonathan Johnson