The Sporting Kansas City U-17s secured their spot in the 2023 MLS NEXT Cup Playoffs with a 2-0 win at the Chicago Fire last Saturday, June 3, in a do-or-die MLS NEXT season finale. The MLS NEXT Cup Playoffs kick off on Saturday, June 17, with the U-17s facing the San Jose Earthquakes on Sunday, June 18 in the first round of the single-elimination tournament.
With back-to-back goals scored in the 73rd and 74th minute, the U-17s capped off an impressive, post-MLS NEXT Flex run with the win in Chicago. Led by head coach Chris O’Neal, the U-17s won three of their last four matches to punch their ticket to the playoffs.
After placing third at MLS NEXT Flex in mid-May, the Sporting KC U-17s found themselves in numerous must-win situations with just four matches to play in the regular season. Needing a second-place finish in the Central (South) Division to make the playoffs, they hosted FC Dallas and the Houston Dynamo at Swope Soccer Village before heading on the road to take on FC Cincinnati and the Chicago Fire.
The U-17s had to win three of their last four matches to jump into second place and got the run started off right with a 4-0 win over FC Dallas on May 21. An early first-half goal from Trajan Wormington was followed up by a second score from the forward in the 70th before the floodgates opened. Angel Franco scored three minutes later, and Aiden Benitez capped off the match in the 82nd with the fourth and final goal of the contest.
A week later, the Dynamo came to Kansas City in what would prove to be a crucial six-pointer in the division standings. Naim Robinson etched his name onto the scorer’s sheet in the 28th minute with a close-range, near post blast. The Sporting defense settled in and kept the clean sheet for the remaining hour, repelling attack after attack. The following day, the team traveled to St. Louis, Missouri, for a meeting with FC Cincinnati. Despite another early goal from Wormington, Cincinnati took the match 3-1.
The playoff math became simple for the U-17s entering their game in Chicago: win and in. Heading to the Windy City for the MLS NEXT regular season finale, the U-17s understood their situation. Sporting took the pitch at SeatGeek Stadium and handed the hosts a 2-0 defeat. A scoreless first half was followed up by goals from Benitez in the 73rd minute and Luis Cruz-Ayala a minute later. Jacob Molinaro kept his third clean sheet in four matches and Sporting locked up their spot in the Playoffs.
The MLS NEXT Cup Playoffs and Showcase will take place at Toyota Soccer Center in Frisco, Texas, from June 17-25. The Sporting KC U-17s will compete for the cup against 31 other elite MLS NEXT teams from around the country.