When you can soak up several haymakers from “Team Chaos” and live to tell the tale, you might have the makings of a deep postseason run.
That’s what Sporting Kansas City believe in the wake of their harrowing Audi MLS Cup Playoffs Round One victory over the hard-charging San Jose Earthquakes at Children’s Mercy Park Sunday, a fun, messy barnburner with three lead changes, two injury-time goals and a penalty-kick shootout dominated in historic fashion by Sporting goalkeeper Tim Melia.
“Part of the playoffs always is kind of getting through that first game,” a relieved Sporting manager Peter Vermes said postgame, explaining how difficult Quakes coach Matias Almeyda’s high-risk, man-marking system is to prepare for. “This opponent was incredibly difficult for so many reasons. I think their system of play, it's not what you see on a regular basis as a team. And so we tried to mimic them for two weeks in training, and it's hard because our players don't play that way.
“So I give them a lot of credit. They played very well, they have a great mentality, they work – their effort, their work ethic was tremendous. At the end, look, Timmy, I've never seen that done by goalkeeper ever before. So survive, win, move on, get ready for the next game: That is for sure the mantra of the playoffs.”
In retrospect, few bottom seeds in any Audi MLS Cup Playoffs bracket have presented as treacherous a banana peel as the Earthquakes did for Sporting. Sporting finished No. 1 in the Western Conference standings, a contentious fact in Cascadia given that they were level on points with the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers, but had played fewer matches and thus owned a superior points-per-game number, with some murmuring they benefitted from a softer schedule given the regionalized slate imposed by COVID-19 precautions.
If outsiders were asking pointed questions of the Kansans, Chris Wondolowski & Co. asked a few more, especially when Wondo stunned Sporting with a 97th-minute equalizer after Gianluca Busio’s 91st-minute strike pushed Sporting ahead 3-2.
"At that point, you think the game is in the bag and then all of a sudden we're not as clean as we should be defensively and now we’re in two 15-minutes overtimes,” recalled Melia.
That sort of sinking feeling has doomed favored sides before – and might well have summoned painful memories of Sporting postseason heartbreaks past.
“I was concerned at that moment that they had the momentum from an emotional perspective, and I could tell that the guys were down, they were upset,” said Vermes. “And I had to do everything I could to kind of change that going into that first overtime. And [his players] got on with it really quickly, and I thought they managed the two overtimes really, really well.”
Busio, who at age 18 became the youngest player in MLS history to notch a goal and an assist in the same playoff game, agreed.
“It's easy for teams to put their heads down after you give up a late goal like that after we just scored,” said the Homegrown midfielder. “But I think this team is built for playoffs, really. We have a good, strong mindset and everybody knew that, OK, we gave up a goal and it's pretty bad, but we have 30 more minutes and PKs, eventually, to win this game. And that's what happened.”
It helps when you have a walking, glove-wearing cheat code in the form of Melia, who added to his fast-growing reputation for PK mastery by saving all three Quakes spot kicks he faced. When his teammates coolly converted their takes, Sporting had won the shortest shootout in league history.
“Everybody stepped up confidently and put them in and we have the best goalie in the league, so that made it pretty easy for us,” said Busio.
Asked repeatedly about his heroics in the postgame press conference, Melia carefully deflected every attempt in favor of praise for his teammates as he sought to keep his team focused on the path in front of them.
“Just the emotions of dealing with getting scored on in these big games,” said the ‘keeper, “and coming together as a group and over time being very compact defensively, not giving anything away and doing what we need to do to get through it, is something that we can really build off of.”