If it weren’t for some stellar play from Minnesota United FC goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair and a goal-line clearance from Michael Boxall, Sporting Kansas City could very well have ended Thursday night by marching into the Western Conference Final against the Seattle Sounders. They would’ve hosted that game, too, as the West's No. 1 seed during the Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs.
But Johnny Russell was twice denied and Roberto Puncec’s header was inches from going in, and then Minnesota scored three goals in a 12-minute span during the first half that settled the 3-0 win. Sporting faced a sizable hole and never could respond.
“We had great chances, I mean we had unbelievable chances,” manager Peter Vermes said. “Up until that they had nothing even at our goal, and so if we scored one of those it's different. I think it was, look, we gave up three goals. That's never good, and it was for us to try and come back in the second half and try to get the first goal and see if we could chip away at the three. If we did, it would be a hell of a comeback. Unfortunately, we were unable to do it.”
Sporting had no answer for Emanuel “Bebelo” Reynoso, who contributed three assists for the second straight playoff game, setting an MLS record in the process. Kevin Molino also got behind their backline twice for sterling finishes, and it ended with Sporting allowing three playoffs goals again after tying the San Jose Earthquakes 3-3 in Round One, only for Tim Melia’s penalty-kick shootout heroics to send them through.
Russell felt that Sporting were better than the result showed. The Scottish winger finds himself in a goalless drought, last scoring 10 games ago when combining the regular season and playoffs.
“It's been a difficult year for everyone,” Russell said. “I think just the effort, the commitment the guys have put in, it's been a crazy year. The start of the season then the big break, going to Orlando, then the restart, it's been tough. We've stuck together.
“We're one of the teams who have excelled, I would say, in that period and then it's just disappointing for it to end like that when we know we're better than that. We started so well, then that period it killed us, and then after that it's a very, very uphill battle to try and get three goals back on that Minnesota team.”
Sporting again played without Alan Pulido (knee injury), with Vermes expressing confidence in the buildup that their No. 9 could feature. The club-record transfer was deemed not fit enough, however, and Vermes said he would have contributed in some capacity against Seattle had Sporting advanced.
“For sure he would have been in the team,” Vermes said of Pulido, who had 6g/5a in 12 games this year. “I don't know if he would've started, but he would've been in the team in the next match if we would've gotten through.”
Sporting were the last No. 1 seed remaining, after the Supporters’ Shield-winning Philadelphia Union bowed out of the Eastern Conference in Round One against the New England Revolution. There was a real possibility that MLS Cup would’ve been played at Children’s Mercy Park, too, but that never came to fruition.
Assessing the year and what Sporting accomplished, Vermes made clear that he viewed his team as a deserving No. 1 seed. He called out those who poked holes in their record, calling it “disrespectful” on multiple occasions.
“You don't win, you don't come in first place in the division just by accident,” Vermes said. “You don't, and I know that a lot of people have made that comment and at the time I never responded to it, but I think it was extremely disrespectful.
“When everybody talks about the schedule that we play and all that stuff, there's teams that we played that we beat and other teams that we didn't play played those teams and lost to them. So I don't know how people make those decisions, but it's extremely disrespectful to our club. I would never look at it that way."
Sporting didn’t make the playoffs whatsoever in 2019, and now they enter a pivotal offseason on the roster front. Decisions will emerge in the coming weeks, with Vermes also tipping his cap to Adrian Heath’s team as they advance.
“We have some very good players here,” Vermes said. “A lot of guys got a lot of experience, but it's never good when you finish the season when you know that you had more to give. I think that today, I give Minnesota a lot of credit. They found a way, they were very good in transition and on the goals they scored in that short period of time, and then after that we just couldn't find another goal. But that's the way it goes sometimes."