Sporting Kansas City II (13-9-6, 49 points) claimed what could prove to be a massive extra point in a 1-1, MLS NEXT Pro Decision Day draw against St. Louis CITY2 (11-8-9, 47 points) at Children's Mercy Victory Field on Sunday night. The result guarantees Sporting KC II at least a top-four finish, and the team could jump as high as third if Austin FC II fails to pick up a point at North Texas SC.
First-team defender Robert Voloder scored his first SKC II goal to bring the match level in the 74th before John Pulskamp made a massive shootout save to help lift the group past their Frontier Division rivals. All told, seven Sporting Kansas City first-team players made an impact on this match.
Head Coach Benny Feilhaber trotted out a regular season finale starting XI with Pulskamp in goal and a back five playing in front of him. Lucas Rosa manned the right side with Voloder, Nassim Mekideche and Chris Rindov in the middle and Vitor Dias split out on the left. A double pivot of Ethan Bryant and Danny Flores trolled the midfield with Cam Duke, Pau Vidal and Sebastian Cruz getting into the front three.
A highly competitive, 90-minute battle that was capped off by kicks from the spot began slowly as both teams grew into the match in the early going. The first real offensive break came for CITY2 in the eighth minute when they won the match's first corner. A low, driven ball at the near post was won out of the air by Vidal and cleared up the pitch.
The first chance for Sporting KC II came eight minutes later on a free kick from the left sideline in the attacking third. Mekidche won the initial ball with a headed effort before tenaciously winning it back from his knees in the box. Rindov attempted to get on the loose ball before getting pulled down with no call from the official.
Mekideche connected with Bryant again on a corner kick, heading the ball goalward just wide. Flores made an effort at getting on the loose ball before it could roll out but was called offside. Rosa then pinged a cross to Vidal in the box who won it out of the air with an outstretched boot, sent the shot at the target but saw it blocked by his mark in front of him.
Pulskamp used his hands for the first time in the 27th, dashing off his line to collect a rolled-through ball. He got the ball back and play quickly and SKC II worked it up the field to Bryant. The midfielder struck one with authority from beyond the box, but could not sneak it through the traffic.
Vidal then forced Christian Olivares into his first save, making the keeper dive off his line to parry a shot to the side. Rosa got to the saved shot and played the ball back into the area where a headed clearance soared downfield. St. Louis then cracked one at Mekideche's noggin which the defender used to block the shot. A second attempt was snagged easily by Pulskamp.
The best chance of the first half came in the final minute when Cruz got in behind the backline and tried to round the keeper. Olivares was wise to this, dropped down quickly and took the ball off the winger's foot before he could get a shot going on the empty net. The scoreless deadlock remained as the first 45 came to a close.
Feilhaber did not make any changes at the break. In the first five minutes, Rosa drew a pair of identical fouls outside the 18 after burning his defender. The first freekick of the two was blocked by the wall, rolled out to Dias and blocked by Mekideche before Rosa was fouled again. His second set piece also got cleared out to Dias and sent back in by the Brazilian before being hammered downfield.
Cruz went sprinting down the line before trying to find Vidal in the 51st. The ball played in was a tantalizing one, however, a retreating defender was able to cut it off. The Spanish striker and SKC II's regular season goals leader made a pair of nifty turns inside the 18 in the 57th before seeing a shot from close range blocked. A minute later, a Bryant restart found Mekideche inside the six where the defender roped one on target that Olivares stopped on his front post.
In the 62nd, SKC II made their first swap, bringing on Felipe Hernandez for Cruz. Vidal got into another dangerous area in the 64th, and much like the first few attempts, had his shot blocked in traffic, this time off the chest of the keeper who smothered the loose ball. St. Louis scored the opener in the 66th on a rolled shot from distance off the foot of Faysal Bettache.
The celebration was short-lived, lasting less than 10 minutes before SKC II leveled in the 74th. An in-swinging free kick from Bryant took about eight deflections before Voloder latched onto it. Ironically, his shot took a deflection on the way end and rolled past the helpless keeper to bring the match even.
Josh Coan entered in the 75th for Flores and Stephen Afrifa came on for Vidal in the 83rd as SKC II looked to shore up the result and secure a top-four finish. Neither side could find a true chance in the final 15 minutes of regulation or the four added minutes.
Regulation ended and kicks from the spot would settle this matchup for a third straight time. Pulskamp got the shootout started in style, diving to save Larsen Hackworth's first-round kick. Coan, who had four regular season, regulation penalty conversions then calmly converted his. The two sides then traded blows with Hernandez and Bryant making their kicks for SKC II.
Aaron Heard skied his over the bar before Voloder missed the mark in the fourth round. Josh Maher sank a clutch one for St. Louis but it was no matter as Rosa strode confidently to the spot. The right back and three-time MLS NEXT Pro Goal of the Matchday winner buried his kick and gave SKC II the additional and all-important second point.
With the win, SKC II has now claimed shootout victories over CITY2 in two of the last three meetings. It also jumped them over Austin FC II in third place in the West while they waited for a weather delay to finish out their match against North Texas.
If the result holds, Sporting KC II will select their Opening Round opponent for the postseason and will host the match at Rock Chalk Park in Lawrence, KS.
Sporting KC II
St. Louis CITY2
Sporting Kansas City II: John Pulskamp; Lucas Rosa, Chris Rindov, Nassim Mekideche, Robert Voloder, Vitor Dias; Danny Flores (Josh Coan 75'), Cam Duke, Ethan Bryant; Sebastian Cruz (Felipe Hernandez 62'), Pau Vidal (Stephen Afrifa 83')
Subs Not Used: Ethan Bandre, Bakary Bagayoko, Ozzie Cisneros, Alex Cunningham, Jahon Rad, Cielo Tschantret
St. Louis CITY2: Christian Olivares; Nolan McGuire, Michael Wentzel, Josh Maher, Ezra Armstrong; Wan Kuzain (Dida Armstrong 65'), Sergio Rivas (Aaron Heard 65'), Max Schneider, John Klein; Ryley Gibbs (Mykhi Joyner 46'), Faysal Bettache (Larsen Hackworth 78')
Subs Not Used: Eric Walker, Lucas Bartlett, Caden Glover, Stanislav Koval, AJ Palazzolo, Eric Walker
STL – Faysal Bettache 9 (Max Schneider 6) 66'
SKC – Robert Voloder 1 (unassisted) 74'
SKC – Cam Duke (yellow card; time wasting) 40'
STL – Ezra Armstrong (yellow card; reckless offense) 47'STL – Michael Wentzel (yellow card; time wasting) 56'
STL – Dida Armstrong (yellow card; tactical foul) 77'SKC – Nassim Mekideche (yellow card; reckless offense) 86'
STL – Larsen Hackworth (saved)
SKC – Josh Coan (converted)
STL – Nolan McGuire (converted)**
SKC – Felipe Hernandez (converted)
STL – Dida Armstrong (converted)
SKC – Ethan Bryant (converted)
STL – Aaron Heard (missed)
SKC – Robert Voloder (missed)
STL – Josh Maher (converted)
SKC – Lucas Rosa (converted)
Shots on Goal
Referee: Kevin Broadley
Assistant Referee: Art Arustamyan
Assistant Referee: AJ Franklin
Fourth Official: Jacob Larson