Sporting Kansas City knew about the dangers of Portland Timbers Argentine dynamic duo, but they fell victim to the Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco’s abilities in the Western Conference Final 2nd Leg (and overall) 3-2 Thursday evening at Sporting’s Children’s Mercy Park. An opening goal by Daniel Salloi, one called back by an offside, and a second half goal by Gerso Fernandes that gave the club life were not enough for the hosts.
Since Children’s Mercy Park opened in 2011, Sporting Kansas City has written many chapters. And many championship chapters at the stadium, including US Open Cup titles in 2012 and 2017 and a Western Conference title and an MLS Cup in 2013. Thursday night hosting Portland Timbers in the 2nd Leg of the 2018 Western Conference Final, they endeavored to add to their championship lore again. This time, any win by any score would mean the title and a berth into MLS Cup 2018.
The same eleven, save for a Diego Rubio for Khiry Shelton switch at center forward, was given the opportunity write their own names into Sporting KC history. But they faced a formidable foe in the Timbers, featuring 2017 MLS MVP Diego Valeri and a cast of hardened MLS vets. The two sides battled to a physical and tense 0-0 draw in the 1st Leg last Sunday in Portland in which both had their chances, setting up tonight’s determining battle.
Early on, Sporting looked especially alive on the ball taking on players and playing long balls into space for Rubio and midfielder Felipe Gutierrez as Portland pressured half-way into Kansas City’s half. The vigorous attacks drew multiple fouls in dangerous areas around the Timbers’ box. Yet, Sporting KC gained nothing from the first ten-minute onslaught besides one Johnny Russell shot on goal from a slaloming run on the right side a minute later.
The 16th minute saw Sporting’s third corner. Gutierrez swerved a ball into the six-yard box where Rubio’s header forced Portland goalkeeper Jeff Attinella to quickly swipe it down with his left hand.
Four minutes later, Sporting would hit pay dirt. It was another spirited run from Russell, this time taking on two Timbers defenders. Trying get around the right corner near the end line and seemingly going nowhere, Russell’s last touch bounded off a defender and squirted free at the near post for Rubio. The Chilean’s right-footed swing sent the ball to a far post Salloi whose first-time shot hit a defender and went in the back of the net.
Salloi thought he had scored again four minutes later, but center back Ike Opara was offside as he shielded Attinella from the attempt.
In stark contrast to the even possession of the 1st Leg, Sporting held 67% of the possession at the 39th minute. However, in the ensuing three minutes, Portland threatened twice, one from a nice Andy Polo turn and shot on the left inside of KC’s box and the second from Polo again on the right.
The domination that Sporting held most of the half faded as Portland got into the game, leaving questions about how each team would come out in the second stanza. In addition, Salloi was left on the sideline struggling to put weight on his right knee as the four minutes of stoppage time wound down.
Salloi returned for the 2nd half. And so did Sebastian Blanco for the Timbers. The Argentine was given space at the top of Sporting’s box in the 52nd minute. And he took full advantage, ripping a shot from 20 yards over Sporting goalkeeper Tim Melia’s left shoulder to equalize the match. At this stage, Portland would go through to MLS Cup by virtue of more away goals.
Sporting Kansas City needed to find the attacking vigor they displayed early in the match. Portland continued to control the match, and they found the lead in the 61st minute. Valeri followed up after Melia was forced to confront forward Jeremy Ebobisse who had been played in by a Blanco chip. Valeri headed Melia’s deflection of the shot into the back of the empty net.
Now needing two goals for his team to advance, Sporting manager Peter Vermes, after rushing across the field to fans who had thrown items on the field after the goal, inserted Gerso Fernandes for Salloi. Ten minutes later, he put on Krisztian Nemeth for Rubio.
A bevy of chances and half-chances for Sporting KC ensued. The best being a Gutierrez chance as he carried on the left side behind the Portland defense off a ball over the top from Matt Besler. His low shot was foiled by the onrushing Attinella.
In the 78th, Espinoza played a cross-field ball from the right side that steamed for Gerso. The Guinea-Bissau native touched for the coming Nemeth, but it was too close to Attinella who scooped it up.
A new life sprung forth, yet Sporting was one from going through. Only a win would do it for the hosts. Back-to-back corners came from another Russell solo in the 84th minute, but both were handled by the Timbers.
Sporting players put their all into it, epitomized by Opara keeping a ball alive that was about to go out near the touch line by a defender, but nothing came to fruition in regulation. The nine minutes of stoppage time given by Referee Mark Geiger was all they had left to make their way.
But in the last minute, on the counter, Valeri would carve out a trail of tears for the home side and their fans with the match sealing goal. On the night, Portland scored on all three of their shots on goal.
MLS Western Conference Champions Portland Timbers will travel to Eastern Conference Champions (and overall 2nd seed in the playoffs) Atlanta United Saturday, December 8, for the 2018 MLS Cup Championship. Portland will be vying for their second MLS Cup, having been victorious in Columbus in 2015.
Meanwhile, Sporting Kansas City will begin preparations for CONCACAF Champions League action beginning in February, a month before their 2019 MLS Season begins, their 24th season since joining MLS as a charter member in 1996 as the Kansas City Wizards.