Sporting Kansas City were where they wanted to be. They had fought through five years, for 34 regular season games to grab the top seed in the Western Conference playoffs. They had endured a slump here, an injury there, disrespect and doubt from pundits. They had gutted out a 1-1 draw on the road a week earlier in leg one of the series.
Then, finally at home, they had taken Sunday’s second leg by the neck with two sterling goals right up the gut of Real Salt Lake, their archrivals. Archrivals, who, on the day, were especially combative, chopping down midfield lynchpins Ilie Sanchez and, especially, Felipe Gutierrez over and over.
In a match where a draw above 0-0 or a win would send RSL into the Western Conference Final and spoil Sporting KC’s first home playoff match in five years, RSL forward Sebastian Saucedo had put the visitors within one seven minutes earlier. Tension was high. Pictures of past playoff failures painfully pierced minds.
A vital block of a Damir Kreilach shot off an RSL corner in the 18th minute and a sliding clearance of a cross to the top of Sporting’s box in the 40th minute had been holding midfielder Ilie’s largest contributions on the day. His usual calm, visionary distribution was there, but he had not shined on the attack.
But then a delicious Gutierrez ball split three defenders for a centrally penetrating Diego Rubio. The forward took a poor touch. The drama of Sporting Kansas City’s most important penalty kick since 2015 erupted.
Off his poor touch on the ball that rolled to RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando and knowing a full stride would have carried him in front of coming defender Chinedum Onuoha, Rubio cut the stride of his left-footed step short to force a collision. Contact. Rubio falls to the pitch. “I have to tell you from experience, I know exactly what Diego Rubio was thinking there,” commented ESPN announcer and 12-year MLS forward Alejandro Moreno. But no matter, Referee Jose Carlos Rivero called for a penalty that survived subsequent Video Assistant Referee review.
Ilie, always the leader, joined four RSL players and Rivero in heated discussions about the call. Then he took the ball. He was exactly where he wanted to be.
Three weeks previous, Ilie’s penalty kick attempt in a critical away match down the stretch of the season had been stopped by FC Dallas netminder Jesse Gonzalez as he stretched out right to knock it around his post. Winger Johnny Russell took the ball for a later penalty in that match in place of Ilie, who up to then had been the de facto PK taker for Sporting KC.
“The game where he missed in Dallas, I’m the one who made the decision for Johnny to go up there; I wanted somebody different,” Manager Peter Vermes would say after Sunday’s match. “Sometimes you get emotionally all caught up in that. I left it up to those guys today, to whoever wanted it. [Ilie] stepped up. That was a big finish, a gutsy finish.”
No pictures of failure rolled through Ilie’s head. Only a mission of redemption. And glory.
There is always jawing from the goalkeeper to the PK taker. It’s meant to intimidate, force the shooter into a mistake. Sometime before Ilie took the shot, Rimando, the legendary MLS ‘keeper, spoke especially impudent words. He told Ilie, “Make sure that you go in one side or the other.” Like Gonzalez, Rimando had surely studied film of Ilie’s past attempts. Perhaps Ilie’s attempts - this corner, then the other - had become predictable. Ilie replied “Ok.”
In 2015, Spaniard Jordi Quintilla stepped to the spot in the third round of sudden death PKs in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup final at Philadelphia Union. Quintilla (like Ilie, a product of Barcelona’s La Masia academy, and a former teammate of Ilie’s at Barcelona B) calmly rolled his shot past Union goalkeeper Zach McCarthy to give Sporting Kansas City the championship at rainy PPL Park.
Ilie stood stock still. His face locked in a look of determination. He ran towards the ball sitting on the white dot from the left for an assumed right corner (Rimando’s left) finish. Just before he puts boot to ball, Ilie’s head lifts, and sees Rimando dive left. A flick of his right ankle lifts the ball skyward, right down the middle. A classic Panenka. The ball crosses the goal line as Rimando rolls over to get a good look at it ripple the net.
Then the emotion. As Ilie runs by Rimando, he flicks his wrist while turning down his lips and nodding his head at his teammates as if to say, “That’s right; I did that. And it felt pretty damn good.”
Moreno commented, “Nick Rimando, specialist in penalty kick save. No. No. Not today. That is just nasty from Ilie Sanchez.” And it would be the match winner that would take Kansas City to the conference final, as RSL would score again later to raise tension inside all at Children’s Mercy Park.
“I came from Dallas when I missed that PK. It was right in front of our fans that had traveled that night,” said Ilie. “I was so sorry for them. I was just happy that I could do it tonight and everybody was able to enjoy it.”
For his part, Russell would have liked the chance. But he knows Ilie is the man.
“For whatever reason, if he doesn’t hit it, then nobody’s taking it off me,” said Russell. “Ilie’s the penalty taker, and he’s been brilliant all season. The calmness and composure he showed on that one today in such a key part of the game; it was perfect.”
The taking of the responsibility. The flair and cleverness of the execution. It was all gutsy by a man who has taken a bigger leadership role for Kansas City in his second year with the club.
Said Captain Matt Besler, “[The Panenka] fits his personality, and it fits the type of player that he is. There is never a moment that is too big for him. He wants the ball in big moments.”