Let’s start by saying no one likes to hear complaining or excuses. That said, we need to therapeutically get them out of our system so we can shift our focus to 2019 and the CONCACAF Champions League, which undoubtedly Sporting Kansas City are going to win.
Playoff Rules 1: Away Goals
I’ve been bitching about the MLS Cup Playoffs and their format for years. One of those rules is the away goals rule. Simply stated, a tie is broken by away goals. With Sporting KC and the Portland Timbers playing to a 0-0 draw in the Rose City, all Portland needed was a draw with at least a goal scored to win.
So when they came out in the second half and scored a golazo immediately, SKC started playing a little panicked. They gave up a second quick goal and suddenly, though only down 2-1, needed two goals to advance. Sporting got one back and if it wasn’t for that rule, Extra Time would have been forthcoming. But since they needed another they threw everyone forward and gave up a 99th minute goal when Portland countered their desperate late attempts. If not for that garbage time goal, SKC would have lost by tying. Ridiculous.
I understand much of the world uses this rule, but much of the world also doesn’t do playoffs. They use it in other competitions outside of league play. MLS doesn’t play a single table balanced schedule, so why force this rule when the league does it’s own thing in other ways? It is likely going away in 2019, one year too late.
Playoff Rules 2: Aggregate Series
Away goals wouldn’t even be a thing if the higher seeded team actually had got home field advantage. Instead they play a two-legged series where the first game is on the road. I bitched about that too, who knew all my complaints would come back to bite SKC?
For reference. 10 of the last 14 @MLS Conference Finals Champions have been the lower seed (in the 2 leg format). That's insanely high given how much home field advantage means in the regular season. It's almost as if being the higher seed is bad.— Blayne Riffle (@riffbw) November 30, 2018
Time for single elimination!
I didn’t bother to check this stat, but according to the above tweet 10 of the last 14 MLS Conference Finals Champions have gone to the lower seed. So much for that home field advantage making the epically long regular season carry more weight.
Playoff Rules 3: Play on the Weekend!
You’ll be stunned to know I randomly bitched about this too (three of my four complaints actually factored in — at least a little — for SKC), but why was this game on Thursday? There are no games this weekend. MLS Cup is a week from Saturday. This game should have been on Saturday, December 1st.
First I’ll admit, Portland had this short rest too, but a couple extra factors were in play for Sporting KC. Before the game Taylor Twellman said four SKC players had the flu this week. He didn’t say who. But with only four days between games, that has to be a factor. Add to that weather delays getting into Portland and weather delays causing Sporting to not come home after that first leg game, and things just really didn’t go well. This excuse is pretty weak, but let me have my catharsis.
Zarek Valentin’s Missing Red Card
First let me say, Mark Geiger called a pretty good game. His crew, I think correctly, took away SKC’s 2nd goal on two separate occasions. Ike Opara was clearly offside and if he didn’t foul Attinella, he at least obstructed his ability to save Daniel Salloi’s header. The other called back goal also correct. Also, while I think Geiger missed on ticky-tack calls here and there, it was nothing egregious. Even Portland’s second goal, which may have been offside, looked even to me on the first glance. Then there was the call.
In the 70th minute, Zarek Valentin, who was on a yellow card, chopped down Gerso who was breaking in on goal. It was so clearly a second yellow, but Geiger kept his cards in his pocket. The commentary team for ESPN thought it was a yellow. And of course the players were livid. Since nine minutes of stoppage time was ultimately added, that caused Portland to have all 11 players for that 29 minutes instead of being down a man. Also, they likely would have subbed an attacking player off to get a defender on to replace Valentin, so there is additional impact there.
Sporting Didn’t Finish Their Chances
Finally an excuse that’s not an excuse. The team just wasn’t good enough in the critical moments. Portland had three shots on goal (eight total) and all three shots went in. SKC had 20 total, eight on goal, but only managed to score twice. The xG differential is stunning. Sporting had 3.03 to the Timbers 0.83.
You have to finish your chances. Sporting couldn’t do that when it mattered the most. They probably could have scored five or six goals easily, but they didn’t. Which brings me to...
Portland’s Stars > Sporting’s Stars
Sebastian Blanco scored the goal of the playoffs. It was an absolute beauty (or disgusting to look at depending on your perspective). There is nothing Tim Melia could have done about it. Then, after that, Diego Valeri scored a gritty goal when Blanco chipped the defense and all hell broke loose in the box. And finally, Valeri put away the icer in the dying moments. Oh, and lets not forget Diego Chara, who bossed the midfield all night.
SKC on the other hand, who it’s probably safe to say don’t have “stars” in the same sense, didn’t get the performances they needed from their bigger players. Felipe Gutierrez played really good, but he didn’t finish (or setup someone else to finish). Diego Rubio had a beautiful assist but he wasn’t the same in the second half. Johnny Russell had his moments, but he couldn’t break through. Daniel Salloi got hurt and subbed off, which is obviously out of his control. Ilie was absolutely invisible. Portland may have figured out the blueprint to deal with him and they simply took him out of the game.
SKC Played a Horrific 10 Minutes
Early in the second half, SKC gave up two goals. Obviously Blanco’s shot was crazy good, but Espinoza seemed tired and didn’t rush him and Ilie Sanchez recognized that too late and didn’t pressure the shot quickly enough. That 10 minutes where they looked slow and exhausted ultimately cost them the game.
Sporting had a Season High 35 Crosses
That’s not a way to create quality chances. The team possessed the ball as they like to do (59.6% to 40.4%). But they didn’t cycle the ball around quickly enough to split holes in the Portland D. If Kei Kamara were still on the team, sure, whip in a few balls. But they are better when they do long diagonal balls across the field to open things up, or cut through the middle with sharp passes. Credit to Portland’s midfield for disrupting that.
The Performance/Management of the Subs
The three subs were Gerso Fernandes on for Salloi. Krisztian Nemeth for Rubio. Yohan Croizet for Russell. First, Gerso was fantastic. He immediately sparked the game and turned the tide. It always felt like Sporting were going to score and he actually got a well taken goal. Gerso did have two pretty big flubs though. First, he got set up at the top of the box and absolutely screwed up his shot. Second, he was sent a beautiful long cross that he just needed to tap across the goal to Nemeth who would have had a tap in.
Speaking of Nemeth. His problem is he wasn’t as good as Rubio, who didn’t even have his best night. I was honestly okay with him coming on, but it didn’t work out. Khiry Shelton was an option but he’s looked awfully lately, specifically in the playoffs (Shelton supporters will no doubt point to him not being used as the reason for the loss). Then again, Nemeth hasn’t played at all, so maybe that was a mistake. This biggest thing for Nemeth was that the service to him was poor. There was the above Gerso non-pass and also Gutierrez had the chance to slot it through to him for another tap in. He seemed to be in the right spots, but no one got him the ball.
Last is Croizet. He looked jittery and uncomfortable. He had the one good pass to Gerso and in his defense, he had very little time to get into the flow of the game. His biggest problem is that he was subbed on for the wrong guy. The team was in desperate need of a goal and they take off Russell, who was probably the most goal dangerous guy left on the field. Take off a fullback like the exhausted Zusi or the defensive Sinovic. Croizet probably gets back to stop Valeri (not that it would matter) on that last second goal. On top of all that, winger might be Croizet’s worst spot too. He was setup to fail.
PV had a great season as a coach. He probably deserves Coach of the Year for doing more with less than nearly anyone in the league. He probably also had his best year in using subs better and more wisely (though that bar is low). This game, when it mattered the most, it didn’t work out. If some of these chances get finished he looks like a genius. But they didn’t, so he’ll inevitably take some blame. I think he would agree (at least I hope), that a bit falls on him.
Portland Plays Ugly Soccer
First let’s just say, they score beautiful goals. What I’m referring to is their rough, physical play. They out fouled SKC 13 to eight (and a few of the eight were really soft). And they picked up five yellow cards to SKC’s one. That doesn’t count the missed yellow on Valentin (which, again, would have been his second of the game). Most of those yellows came after Portland scored, when they had incentive to waste time and play ugly. That stuff makes people hate soccer.
Don’t Forget, Valeri Shouldn’t Have Even Played
Let us all remember that Valeri entered the first leg with a yellow card and was one away from being suspended. While riding a yellow he had a rough challenge on Seth Sinovic which got him a warning. It was borderline yellow and in the regular season would easily have been called. Then Robert Sabiga absolutely botched not giving him a yellow when he went studs up and caught Espinoza in the foot/ankle. Vermes may have said that match was reffed correctly, but most pundits agreed that, while the playoffs would be worse if Valeri was suspended, he deserved another yellow. He went on to score two goals in the second leg. Enough said.
Let’s Blame the Idiots Throwing Stuff on the Field
This is a reach, but it needs a moment. At least a couple fans threw items on the field forcing the game to be stopped. Peter Vermes went to The Cauldron only for them to direct him to the sideline where the debris came from. He implored the fans to stop. At least one fan was arrested. I was appalled when this happened in LA at the Real Salt Lake and Los Angeles Football Club game. It’s so much worse in KC since fans are so much more intelligent supporters. It’s probably a few rogue idiots but it’s unfortunate. Obviously they aren’t really to blame for the loss, but they are dicks, so let’s do it anyways.
In the End
Portland did what they had to do and Sporting KC did not. It hurts right now. It hurts bad. As Vermes said, “it will take a while to get over that one.” All the complaining and excuse making aside, Sporting KC had a fantastic season. Despite the lack of trophies, it’s the best team I’ve even seen assembled in Kansas City. If they can keep this team together and maybe plug in another few pieces, they have a chance to do great things.
I can’t promise we’ll all stop complaining around here, it’s what passionate people do. But I can promise myself and The Blue Testament team will not take a break. The offseason starts now (for the full schedule go here). The team has until Noon today (Friday, November 30th) to exercise options on the nine players who have them. Brad Evans is surely gone. The fate of Diego Rubio, Adrian Zendejas, Colton Storm, Amer Didic, Cristian Lobato, Kharlton Belmar, Erik Dick and Graham Smith will be known in the coming hours. Stick with us and we’ll take care of you this offseason. Even if just to give you a shoulder to cry on.