Sunday night’s clash with Vancouver Whitecaps was supposed to be – on paper and in many people’s minds – a relatively easy win for Sporting Kansas City in the Round of 16 in the MLS is Back Tournament. Kansas City had downed the ‘Caps 3-1 in Vancouver in February’s season opener… the Canadian side was missing important pieces… had less rest… That was all turned on its head by the 54th minute, if not earlier.
Although Sporting had won two of three in the group stage to run their regular season record to 4-1 and win their group, Round 16 (and beyond) of the MLS is Back Tournament held significance because of the $1.1 million pool of prize money and a CONCACAF Champions League berth. Thus, Manager Peter Vermes made only one change to his lineup from Wednesday’s 2-0 victory over Real Salt Lake, the insertion of Gadi Kinda for Gianluca Busio in midfield.
Sporting, as expected, had the lion’s share of the possession and the chances through the first quarter hour. Graham Smith – starting in place of regular captain Matt Besler for the second successive match – nodded a Johnny Russell corner into the hands of Vancouver goalkeeper Thomas Hasal in the 8th minute. That was followed by a stronger chance by Russell. The Scot took down a Graham Zusi cross skillfully, sliced inside right, and hit a shot that two sliding defenders blocked.
However, an Alan Pulido-led chance in the 18th shined the brightest. Near the top of Vancouver’s box, the LigaMx mover found Russell on the right. Russell dropped for Zusi whose spot-on cross found Gadi Kinda across the goal. Kinda rose and hit a solid header that Hasal stretched for a palm save at his left post.
By the 39th minute, Kansas City had a 16-1 advantage in shots. But Hasal and the Vancouver defense had not acquiesced. Furthermore, after 43 minutes, Sporting’s shots on goal advantage was at only 4-3 due to a five-minute Whitecap flurry.
Into First half extra-time, the question remained… who would finish off a breakthrough for Kansas City? Russell chested an effort, remarkably in a moment of sheer reaction, off a cross that snuck thru, but Hasal sprawled right to pad it away.
A few ticks later, Russell’s free kick and Roger Espinoza’s subsequent follow were denied as well. The half came with no change from the kickoff, despite a Kansas City record of 22 shots in the half.
The next strong chance came from a long run by Zusi up the right wing in minute forty-nine. On the counter on the left, Russell spied Zusi’s run and drove accurately for the Maryland college product. Zusi touched well in stride and hit a shot near post that Hasal got down quickly to save.
Inches made the difference in the 54th. After a Vancouver free kick, a Whitecap shot was deflected by Smith, making every head on the field turn and watch the ball roll whiskers wide of Tim Melia’s right post. The classic soccer-match-turned-rope-a-dope was full on as the beleaguered ‘Caps remained in the fight, and were getting in a few blows themselves.
More heart-stopping moments in the 66th. Sporting crept persistently around the edge of the Vancouver box for minutes before Pulido turned aggressor. The 29-year-old shuttled across the box and released a left-footed shot that Hasal got a hand on but pinged off the ‘keeper’s right post.
Busio and Gerso Fernandes entered the match for Sporting for Espinoza and Russell a minute later.
Zusi and company kept bombarding Vancouver’s box, with Pulido getting a flicking foot or thigh on, but nothing on net. Daniel Salloi replaced Khiry Shelton in the 80th minute as Sporting’s efforts to avoid a possibly hairy PK shootout directly after regular time rolled on.
Seven minutes later, heavy legs and some seeming frustration meant miscommunication and errant balls from Kansas City as the shootout felt a probability. A header from Smith sailed over the bar off a Busio corner as six minutes of stoppage time was posted.
More nervy moments, if not a feeling of inevitability, for Kansas City came as Melia bobbled a knuckling Whitecap free kick driven by Ali Adnan from 20 yards. That was followed by a Pulido half-chance on the other end and more fateful circles of the second hand. It was now after midnight in Kansas City, after 1am in Florida.
The shootout had arrived, still somewhat unbelievably. The shot total ended at 35-8 for Sporting. But only 8-5 in shots on goal.
Now five kicks each, perhaps, would determine the outcome and who moved onto the quarterfinals of the restart tournament.
Sporting needed a superman. It was Tim Melia’s moment to shine with two stops as his field cohorts finally found pay dirt three times, the final one by Busio, in the four-round shootout.
Kansas City will now meet Philadelphia Union Thursday evening at 7:00pm in the Quarterfinals of the MLS is Back Tournament.