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Sporting KC handles LAFC, takes West despite down a man

Goals by Espinoza and Salloi clinch top seed in West playoffs.

MLS: Los Angeles FC at Sporting KC William Purnell-USA TODAY Sports

It wasn’t easy, and that bye will be valuable as Sporting Kansas City players nurse a variety of knocks from a highly-contested regular season finale 2-1 win over Los Angeles Football Club, but Sporting KC has grabbed the top playoff seed in MLS’s Western Conference. Roger Espinoza’s long-distance bullet and Daniel Salloi’s goal after Carlos Vela’s equalizer after a Seth Sinovic red card won the day.

It all came down to Decision Day for Peter Vermes’ Sporting Kansas City side. Having exorcised the demon of a destiny of four straight years of a knockout-round away playoff games (and four losses), first-place Kansas City (17-8-8) hosted expansion side second-place LAFC (16-8-9) Sunday at Children’s Mercy Park. A win or a draw would win the Western conference title for the hosts. Would Sporting KC have the wherewithal, the audacity, to tempt fate and nab a first-round bye and home-field advantage until MLS Cup, knowing a loss might mean a home do-or-die playoff match this Wednesday or Thursday? It was a salivating, possibly explosive, scenario with a contentious guest intent on grabbing the spoils for themselves.

Both sides sported ready attacks. Led by 10-goal wingers Scotsman Johnny Russell and homegrown Daniel Salloi, Sporting KC has produced 63 goals, while LAFC has bagged 67, being shutout only three times this season. The only MLS side to boast of three players with 12 or more goals on the season – Mexican star Carlos Vela, Uruguayan Diego Rossi and Norwegian Adama Diomande – has been particularly lethal on the road, averaging 2.19 goals per game. Yet only one is renowned for its stinginess; it was Kansas City’s third-best MLS defense who gave Bob Bradley’s LAFC men their only loss at home in an August 11, 2-0 shutout win.

Additional drama was added by the first time return of former SKC playmaker Benny Feilhaber to Kansas City since he was traded in the offseason, as well as the return of Latif Blessing who was picked by LAFC in the expansion draft.

From the opening whistle, the drama intensified. Off a pinging around in the LAFC box and a Kansas City shot by Daniel Salloi saved by Tyler Miller, Russell rushed to the rebound, collided with Miller, and remained on the pitch. The right winger would return shortly.

Sporting pinched LAFC in their own half early and often, forcing scrappy efforts from the visitors and a yellow card to winger Eduard Atuesta in the 8th minute for a foul on midfielder Felipe Gutierrez. Six minutes later, SKC’s Russell earned a caution for a high elbow catching Rossi while the two went for a dead ball.

Each side wielded early physical play to stymie each other’s attacking rushes. Yet, Sporting KC’s Melia was called to extend right for a left-footed shot from a twisting Carlos Vela in the 30th minute as the matches early quick pace settled into a somewhat more tactical affair.

And that was just fine for Sporting Kansas City. Off their constant midfield pressure, right back Graham Zusi found Roger Espinoza central in space 26 yards out. The Honduran international stepped into a left- footed drive that screamed past Miller into the upper right corner in the 37th minute. The goal was the veteran Espinoza’s third of the season to go with a career high nine assists.

Another veteran lifted Kansas City in the 45th minute when Captain Matt Besler slid to block an Atuesta shot near the spot to see the lead to halftime. Sporting KC is 9-0-0 this season when leading at halftime.

For LAFC, Bradley inserted Blessing for Atuesta at the beginning of the second half, a half that began with Espinoza finding a central-running Salloi for a breakaway on Miller with LAFC back Steven Beitashour tagging behind grasping for the homegrown’s jersey. However, Salloi rolled his attempt into Miller as he came out to cut the angle.

Pause for concern came in the 54th minute as Lee Nguyen drove a shot off Kansas City center back Ike Opara’s head. Opara immediately clutched his head as he fell to the ground. Thankfully, Opara, who had missed time previously with complications after a concussion, passed protocol and reentered the match.

Since his insertion, Blessing’s pace caused trouble for Sporting. In the 59th minute, the Ghanaian latched onto a Besler clear on the right and shot for the far post. Opara, positioned just off the goal line, blocked the shot.

One minute on, the match would turn. Sinovic, pasted to Melia’s right post, was judged to have committed a handball after VAR review off a shot from Diomande. Sinovic was promptly ejected, and Vela deposited the ensuing spot kick easily to Melia’s right.

Adjusting his lineup, Vermes brought on Yohan Croizet to play left back for only the second time this season, removing Russell from the lineup for ten-man Sporting.

Now the intensity would step up. A second LAFC goal came close from Vela off a mix up in front of Kansas City’s goal in the 71st minute. Then, from Shelton on the right wing, Sporting took the lead. Shelton played for Salloi, who, in midst of a triangle of defenders but blessed with time, rolled a shot to Miller’s left from 13 yards into the lower right corner of the net to regain the lead.

After Sporting took the 2-1 lead, Bradley removed Feilhaber in favor of Andre Horta in the 73rd minute. Bradley was had to adjust again as Blessing would be forced from the match in the 77th minute as he and Espinoza collided near midfield.

Sporting KC battled on, surviving a few mild threats and six minutes of added time, and captured the regular season Western Conference title in its 300th regular season win of all-time. Kansas City will now face the lowest advancing seed from the knockout round away November 4th and at home November 11th in the Western Conference semifinal.