Sporting Kansas City earned their first home playoff game in five years, and they duly delivered their first playoff win in that same amount of time for the eager fans that packed the house at Children's Mercy Park. They didn't make it easy for themselves, though.
With Sporting up 3-1 on aggregate going into the second half, Real Salt Lake twice pulled within a goal of flipping the tie in their favor and nearly did find that decisive goal. However, Sporting held their nerve during a chaotic 10-minute flurry at the end of the game and eventually pulled out a 4-2 win on the night, advancing to the Western Conference Championship of the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs.
“I said to myself during that flurry there that was going on, ‘Look if you can’t get through this game, you don’t deserve to move on,’” said Sporting KC manager, Peter Vermes. “That’s the way that the playoffs are. I believe we’re a team that can get through those moments, and we did.”
Sporting KC started off the match with their hair on fire. They went two goals up within the first 20 minutes, and Children’s Mercy Park was floating.
“We were relentless to go to goal,” Vermes said of his team's first-half showing. “We turned them over so many times, didn’t really give them anything. We were unlucky probably to not score four goals in the first half.”
Sporting KC found their recipe for success with some wonderful passes up through RSL’s gut for three of their four goals. Salloi – who scored SKC's second and then iced the game with a cheeky no-look finish – explained how they got so open.
“Their wing backs push up very high,” Salloi said. “So between the side backs and center backs there is space. So we tried to play that zone the first goal when Felipe [Gutierrez] ran in there, then my goal when I ran in there. These are things we practiced all week and I’m glad that it worked out.”
Also contributing to Sporting's offensive success was Diego Rubio, who got the start after coming off the bench and scoring in the first leg. Rubio repaid Vermes’ faith on Sunday with the opening goal, then by earning the game-winning penalty kick in the second half. He will, however miss the first leg of the Western Conference Championship after picking up a yellow for a 63rd-minute handball that stopped an RSL counter.
“When he came in the other night, it wasn’t just the goal, it was the work ethic,” Vermes said. “There has to be eleven guys on the field working. If you’re not up to that task, then somebody else gets an opportunity. He worked his butt off in that game when he came in. I thought we’d have the ball a little bit more, and him in and around the goal is a little bit different for us. It proved to be a good thing. It’s a shame he’s out the next game but that’s the way it goes.”
That first leg will be in Portland against a Timbers side that Sporting KC handled in the regular season with a goalless road draw and a 3-0 win at home. Vermes feels those results should be thrown out the window for that series.
“That stuff doesn’t mean anything because we’re in the playoffs now,” Vermes said post game. Things are different in the playoffs. Teams play differently, teams come in with a different intensity.”
He continued, “I think they defend really well. They’ve showed that in the games that they’ve played here in the playoffs, and then they have the chance to put it away on you too. They’ve got some really good attacking weapons, a lot of players, and they can fight. So it’s going to be a tough series, no doubt.”