The 2018 version of Sporting Kansas City just may be something special. Bucking the trend of a late-season faltering the last four seasons and scoring more goals than any Kansas City side ever, Sporting KC took a daunting trip to first-place FC Dallas, took care of business, and took sole possession of first-place in MLS’s Western Conference. Penalty kicks, missed penalty kicks, physicality, and dramatic tension within and without were overcome in the 3-0 victory. Winger Daniel Salloi recorded his fifth game-winning goal of the season and midfielder Roger Espinoza and winger Johnny Russell added insurance to goalkeeper Tim Melia’s heroics who gained a career high 13th shutout on the season.
With tension provided all week in the lead-up by circumstances, MLS Western Conference’s second-place Sporting Kansas City met first-place FC Dallas Sunday afternoon in Frisco, Texas at Toyota Stadium. Only one point separated the two sides, and only six separated the top five teams in the conference with two games and six points available to all teams as they vied for playoff positioning.
In an expectedly physical first-half of twelve fouls and several strong challenges, the two sides created nine corner kicks total and multiple chances, accentuated by a few spectacular saves by Sporting goalkeeper Tim Melia and Dallas goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez.
In the 8th minute, Melia was boldly out eight yards to the left side of his box to deny a streaking Michael Barrios who broke into his box after evading a near-collision of Sporting center backs Ike Opara and Matt Besler at midfield.
Six minutes on, it was Sporting’s turn to threaten. An interchange between winger Johnny Russell and center midfielder Felipe Gutierrez put Gutierrez on goal, only to be tripped by Hoops’ defender Matt Hedges just outside the six-yard box. Referee Robert Sibiga immediately whistled for a penalty kick. As is the custom, holding midfielder Ilie Sanchez stepped up to take the shot, hitting a well-placed low ball to the left post. However, Gonzalez leaned the right way, enabling him to leap and send the ball around his right post. The strong save denied Sporting a vital lead. At the same time in Los Angeles, fellow second-placers LAFC had taken the lead over visiting Vancouver Whitecaps.
Melia saved a Maximiliano Urruti shot at his left post in the 25th minute before his side threatened again. On the edge of tying the franchise season goal-scoring record of 61 goals, Kansas City still showed a penchant for missing chances. In the 26th minute, a center-positioned midfielder Roger Espinoza sent a free header from eight yards out that bounded off the outside of the left post.
Fast on the transition all match, FC Dallas countered in the 35th minute. Barrios received a ball that split left back Seth Sinovic and Besler. The Colombian pushed past Besler and fed a central running Dominique Badji whose left-footed shot beat the pressuring Melia but squirted just wide of the left post.
Yet in those vital minutes before the half, Sporting would jump on top. In the 45th, striker Khiry Shelton, 36 yards out on the left, took a pass from Gutierrez with his back to the goal, then turned and flicked a lovely ball for the continuing Chilean whose left-footed shot was blocked by Gonzalez to the middle where left winger Daniel Salloi took a touch and shot back to the left. The attempt beat Gonzalez and a goal-line positioned Reggie Cannon for the lead. The goal was the homegrown Hungarian’s 10th of the season. And it could mean the clinching of the first home playoff match in five seasons for Sporting and the City of Fountains.
The drama remained heavy early in the second half as Ilie was called for a foul in the box on Hedges two minutes in. Thus, Sporting was in danger of losing their crucial lead. Swiss International Reto Ziegler stepped up to the penalty spot in front of Melia. Melia, well known for stopping PKs, leaned and then pushed to his left to block away the hard-struck attempt for a resulting innocuous corner.
FC Dallas was not about to be quieted. In the 61st minute, Barrios broke in on the right and sent a dipping shot that Melia palmed away well with his right. For Sporting, some breathing room would be welcomed.
Espinoza would provide. Off a Russell free kick from the right wing, the Honduran International laid out for an Opara downward header and struck the ball past a shielded Gonzalez with his left foot into the left corner of the net. The goal broke Kansas City’s all-time season goal scoring record and gave them some wiggle room. Meanwhile, LAFC had been caught by Vancouver. But Seattle had the lead at Houston Dynamo and Portland the same home to Real Salt Lake.
But Sporting was not done. Russell whipped around Hedges on the left corner of the box and served for Salloi on the doorstep past Gonzalez. Salloi’s feet were swept away by Marquinhos Pedroso, prompting Sibiga to call for a third penalty in the match. This time, Russell stepped up and beat Gonzalez simply to the left. The goal was Russell’s 10th in his first season with Kansas City to go with 10 assists and matching Salloi at the top of KC’s goal scoring table.
After five minutes of stoppage time, the battle had been won.
Kansas City will now head home to host second-place LAFC needing only a draw to take the regular season Western Conference title and the first-round playoff bye and home-field advantage that goes with it. Yet the job is not that clear cut; a loss could mean a drop to third place. But this side may just buck that too.