Is Sporting Kansas City a team of destiny? More posts and timely interventions have top-seeded Sporting Kansas City heading home in good shape in the MLS Western Conference two-match aggregate goals series after a 0-0 draw Sunday evening at 5th-seeded Portland Timbers. Tim Melia featured for the guests as Kansas City were on the short-end of 6-1 deficit in shots on goal. No matter how it was done, the draw puts Sporting KC a home win away from the franchise’s third MLS Cup berth.
But a fortunate Kansas City was not without their chances, and their best came in the 82nd minute.
Johnny Russell, the wee-Scotsman who had so often come through for Sporting during the season, penetrated low on two defenders and played a diagonal ball back to the six-yard box. A back, then front-post running Shelton was denied glory, however, by the foot of Timbers’ defender Zarek Valentin. An extra-time Daniel Salloi shot was blocked by Portland’s Liam Ridgewell, but a goal that would have meant a second-leg advantage didn’t come in a match where the favorites didn’t have many.
Contact after the ball was away featured early and often between the two combatants who played to a scoreless draw on June 9 in Portland and a 3-0 Sporting KC win at home in the regular season. The playoff meeting was the first since the two battled to an epic 2015 2-2, 7-6 home shootout win for the Timbers in a knockout-round playoff match that featured a winning Sporting shootout attempt denied by a double-post bang-bang.
The physical battle took its first victim in the 19th minute as Portland center back Larrys Mariala was forced out of the match, apparently from a non-contact injury. New Zealander Bill Tuiloma took his place.
A quick-paced, somewhat back and forth match in which Sporting KC excelled mostly at necessary defending in their box typified the first 35 minutes. Kansas City’s abilities to hold the ball up in possession and to win second balls begged improvement.
Portland’s chances were typical of a free kick inside midfield four minutes into first-half stoppage time. Timbers center back Liam Ridgewell rose and nodded strongly across the mouth, but Melia took flight and punched the ball away from near the middle of his goal.
The half ended with no shots on goal for Kansas City and three for Portland. Kansas City was far from having any semblance of control in the match, even being out possessed by the usual counter-based hosts.
Sporting KC looked the better early in the second half as Khiry Shelton – starting likely in place of the yellow-card accumulation suspended Diego Rubio – gained traction in his hold-up play and team runs off-the-ball were more insightful.
Yet it was Portland who fired off the first shot on goal of the half as holding midfielder David Guzman shot from 18 into Melia’s cradle from a Matt Besler intervention in the box. It wasn’t until the 56th minute that Sporting got their first shot, a half-volley from 20 by left back Seth Sinovic that was easily taken in by Timbers’ goalkeeper Jeff Attinella.
The Portland-dominated rhythm of the first half returned as Sporting were bottled in their own end while the Timbers searched for, and found, crevasses, but no cracks in Kansas City’s defense.
Until, initially, the 70th minute. A Diego Valeri free kick from the right wing found a back post Ridgewell whose touch hit the back post, then was put in by Guzman. However, Referee Robert Sibiga acknowledged and then confirmed his AR’s offside flag on both Timbers through video review.
The moment echoed a 6th minute moment that perhaps foreshadowed Sporting finding a way to survive going down an away goal through strong positioning and awareness, and bounces and deflections going their way.
The striking moment was all-out irony as Portland’s Jorge Villafana rang Melia’s left post with a shot from the left-top of box after Kansas City’s Besler deflected a near-post cross, the very same left post Sporting hit second in the 2015 shootout double-post denial. Thus, Portland had hit both posts, though in opposite order, that denied Kansas City moving forward in the playoffs four seasons ago.
The final survival came from a Timbers’ corner – the Timbers dominated in corners 5-1 on the night. Substitute Tuiloma hit a strong wind-up header in the 85th minute from eleven yards middle, but Melia pushed right for a stylish, leaping save near his right post.
The two sides will meet again this Thursday at Kansas City’s Children’s Mercy Park in the decisive leg of the two-match aggregate goals series. The series winner will likely travel to Atlanta United – who won the Eastern Conference Final first leg 3-0 at home against New York Red Bulls today – for MLS Cup 2018 on December 8.