"Beyond The Box Score" is a weekly series presented by Compass Minerals that takes a statistical dive into every Sporting match, bringing to light the intriguing numbers and factoids that don't appear in the typical box score. To visit the series archive, click here.
Three points? Check. Playoff berth? Check. Top of the Western Conference? Check.
Wednesday night unfolded just as the doctor ordered for Sporting Kansas City, as a 1-0 road win over FC Cincinnati in the final regular season match at Nippert Stadium punched a ticket to the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs and vaulted the club back into first place.
Second-half substitute Roger Espinoza made the decisive difference in the 57th minute, slotting home off an assist from Alan Pulido to give Sporting a 1-0 advantage that wouldn't be relinquished. Goalkeeper Tim Melia also played a major role in the victory, but more on him in just a moment.
In the newest edition of Beyond the Box Score, presented by Compass Minerals, we begin with the longest tenured manager in MLS and one of the most successful coaches in league history. Peter Vermes, who took the managerial helm in Kansas City in August 2009, has added another feather to his illustrious cap by becoming the first head coach to make nine playoff appearances with one club.
This milestone came on a night that Sporting posted their 11th win of 2020, taking just 20 matches to eclipse their win total from the 34-game regular season in 2019. Vermes led Sporting to a club-record eight straight postseason appearances from 2011-2018, and his team is now guaranteed to have a say in this year's playoffs beginning next month.
MLS HEAD COACHES: MOST PLAYOFF APPEARANCES WITH ONE CLUB
|Peter Vermes||Sporting Kansas City||9||2011-2018; 2020|
|Steve Nicol||New England Revolution||8||2002-2009|
|Bruce Arena||LA Galaxy||8||2009-2016|
|Dominic Kinnear||Houston Dynamo||7||2006-2009; 2011-2013|
|Sigi Schmid||Seattle Sounders FC||7||2009-2015|
"You’re going to have to scrape and scrap and fight and bite for everything in the game (like) today," Vermes said afterward. "At the end, we got a really good result on the road. Those three points are massive for us at the moment and keep us in the hunt. We’ve just got to keep working to gain points. I thought that the subs we made in the second half really had an impact in the game. That was probably the difference in the game."
Peter Vermes becomes the first head coach in @MLS history to lead one club to NINE playoff appearances!— Sporting Matchday (@SKCmatchday) October 29, 2020
🔹 Peter Vermes 9 (SKC)
🔹 Steve Nicol 8 (NE)
🔹 Bruce Arena 8 (LA)
🔹 Sigi Schmid 7 (SEA)
🔹 Dom Kinnear 7 (HOU) pic.twitter.com/maFJhEHKNf
It should be noted that Sporting ended the month of September in a rough patch, having lost two straight home matches to drop to third in the West. However, Vermes' men have caught fire since the calendar turned to October by going 5-1-1 during one of the club's busiest months in recent memory. That record could very well be 6-0-1 if not for a pair of controversial decisions that went against Sporting in a 1-0 loss at FC Dallas on Oct. 14 and a 2-2 draw at Chicago Fire FC three days later.
Remarkably enough, October 2020 marks just the second month in which Sporting has secured five regular season wins since the dawn of the non-shootout era in 2000. The first such occurrence took place in April 2000 when Vermes, a player at the time, and the Kansas City Wizards were laying the groundwork for a Supporters' Shield and MLS Cup-winning campaign.
SPORTING KC: FIVE-WIN MONTHS
(MLS REGULAR SEASON, ALL-TIME)
2 shootout wins
3 shootout wins
A key figure in three of Sporting's five wins this month has been Pulido, who notably missed four straight games from Oct. 7-17 while on international duty with Mexico. The 29-year-old striker was heavily involved on Wednesday and set up Espinoza's game-winner near the hour mark. Pulido now has 11 combined goals (six) and primary assists (five) in just 12 appearances this season. His clip of 0.917 goals or primary assists per match rank second in MLS among players who have played at least 10 times in 2020.
GOALS + PRIMARY ASSISTS PER MATCH
(2020 MLS REGULAR SEASON, MIN. 10 APPEARANCES)
|Raul Ruidiaz||Seattle Sounders FC||10+3||13||14||0.929|
|Alan Pulido||Sporting Kansas City||6+5||11||12||0.917|
|Gyasi Zardes||Columbus Crew SC||11+4||15||18||0.833|
|Alejandro Pozuelo||Toronto FC||8+9||17||21||0.810|
Taking a closer look at Sporting's goal, the buildup involved not only Pulido but Gadi Kinda, who sprung the Mexican free down the left flank with an inch-perfect through ball. Pulido and Kinda, who have both been nominated for 2020 MLS Newcomer of the Year, have delivered levels of productivity like very few other first-year players across the league.
As detailed below, Pulido and Kinda are two of six MLS newcomers with 10 or more combined goals and assists during the regular season. Suffice to say, Vermes and the Sporting KC technical staff had quite the offseason last winter when they welcomed this duo into the squad.
MOST GOALS + ASSISTS AMONG MLS NEWCOMERS
(2020 REGULAR SEASON)
|Lewis Morgan||Inter Miami CF||5||7||12|
|Alan Pulido||Sporting Kansas City||6||5||11|
|Robert Beric||Chicago Fire FC||9||1||10|
|Gadi Kinda||Sporting Kansas City||6||4||10|
|Daryl Dike||Orlando City SC||6||4||10|
|Yimmy Chara||Portland Timbers||3||7||10|
Last but certainly not least, we conclude by examining the heroic contributions of Melia. The keeper was credited with two saves on Wednesday—one of which crucially denied Jurgen Locadia on the breakaway—and he should have been awarded a third when he got a vital touch to a Brandon Vazquez strike that caromed off the post and out of play.
Melia, whose feel-good rise from League Pool Goalkeeper to MLS star has been well-documented, has now passed club legend Tony Meola for first on the club's all-time regular season saves chart and ranks first or second on almost every relevant goalkeeping stat for the club.
WHERE TIM MELIA RANKS AMONG KC GOALKEEPERS
(MLS REGULAR SEASON, ALL-TIME)
- 509 saves (1st)
- 51 shutouts (1st)
- 72 wins (1st)
- 166 appearances (1st)
- 166 starts (1st)
- 14,893 minutes (1st)
- 1.22 GAA (2nd)
- .708 save % (2nd)
All of this fails to mention the fact that FC Cincinnati squandered a golden opportunity to equalize in the 63rd minute. After Frankie Amaya won the hosts a penalty kick, Siem de Jong stepped to the spot and smacked his attempt off Melia's left-hand post. Although he hadn't made the save, Melia's masterful penalty-saving prowess just may have been in the back of de Jong's mind.
Simply put, Melia's resumé on penalty kicks has become more and more absurd. Five of the last six penalties he has faced have been unsuccessful, and in MLS regular season play he has allowed just 14 of 26 penalties faced. His PK goals conceded percentage during the regular season is a miserly 53.8%, comfortably the lowest in MLS history.
"Tim has one of those careers that you could write a short little film around," Vermes said after the match. "He came into the league and bounced between two teams and was a league pool goalkeeper. He’s become one of the best goalkeepers in this league. He’s had obviously a great career thus far – and he still has a lot ahead of him. He’s done well here and he has to continue to keep doing that and we’ve got a lot of games to play."
LOWEST GOALS CONCEDED PERCENTAGE ON PENALTY KICKS
(MLS REGULAR SEASON, MINIMUM 10 PENALTIES FACED)
|#||Player||Club(s)||%||PK Allowed||PK Faced|
|1||Tim Melia||Sporting Kansas City||0.538||14||26|
|2||Matt Jordan||FC Dallas
Columbus Crew SC
|3||Jeff Causey||D.C. United
New England Revolution
|4||Daniel Vega||San Jose Earthquakes||0.636||7||11|
|5||Nick Rimando||Miami Fusion
Real Salt Lake
With a brilliant month of October in the books, Sporting will ring in November by hosting regional rivals Minnesota United FC in the club's regular season home finale on Sunday at Children's Mercy Park. Kickoff is set for 6:30 p.m. CT with tickets available at SeatGeek.com and live coverage on FOX Sports Kansas City, FOX Sports Midwest, FOX Sports GO, ESPN 94.5 FM and La Grande 1340 AM.