Sporting Kansas City exits MLS playoffs with stoppage-time home loss to Real Salt Lake

·4 min read

For the second time in a month, Sporting Kansas City has fallen to Real Salt Lake via a last-gasp winner.

This time around, the outcome ended Sporting KC’s season.

In front of a Children’s Mercy Park crowd that included a cadre of standing-room-only ticket-holders that increased capacity to 21,650, Sporting KC fell 2-1 to Real Salt Lake in the Western Conference semifinals.

A first-half penalty converted by Johnny Russell was countered by second-half goals from Salt Lake’s Anderson Julio and Bobby Wood. The second of those goals came in the 91st minute of the game.

“Every single one of us needs to look in the mirror after that,” Russell said.

The result marks the third time this season that Kansas City lost to Real Salt Lake. The most recent loss, before Sunday’s game, was a 1-0 result on Decision Day, also at Children’s Mercy Park.

It also extends a streak of Kansas City not winning more than one playoff game in a postseason since 2013, when they won the MLS Cup.

Kansas City squandered an opportunity to host the Western Conference Final at Children’s Mercy Park after the fourth-seeded Portland Timbers defeated No. 1 Colorado on Thanksgiving Day.

“It kind of set up for us a little, with how other results went, and ultimately we didn’t take advantage of it,” Sporting KC goalkeeper Tim Melia said. “This game was an opportunity to have the backing of our fans and our support system, and in the biggest moment, we faltered.”

But unlike their first two games against Salt Lake this year, this time RSL attacked on the front foot. And Sporting KC looked afraid to lose.

“We sat back way too deep,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said. “We didn’t expect to sit back as deep as we did. We didn’t want to. We just weren’t putting pressure on them and we gave them too much time and space on the ball.”

Kansas City’s goal in the 23rd minute forced Real Salt Lake to open up and attack with more regularity than it had in recent months.

Salt Lake reached the conference semifinals with a first-round performance in which the Seattle Sounders outshot RSL 21-to-0, yet RSL advanced on penalties. On the final day of the regular season, Salt Lake defeated Sporting KC in largely by remaining tight at the back before snatching a 95th-minute winner.

So when Sporting KC’s Gadi Kinda was tripped up in the Salt Lake box on Sunday and referee Kevin Stott pointed to the penalty spot, the trajectory of the match seemed to hang in the balance. Russell confidently dispatched his kick past RSL goalkeeper David Ochoa, who lunged the wrong way.

In Major League Soccer’s somewhat new playoff format, which scrapped two-legged rounds and now features win-or-go-home scenarios, Salt Lake was forced to come out of its shell. That turned what might have otherwise been a one-sided affair into an end-to-end battle between two teams looking to keep their season alive.

Sporting KC initially appeared to benefit from the fast pace of play, creating more opportunities and even hitting the post early in the second half. But as time ran short for the visitors, RSL slowly turned the momentum in its favor.

Julio headed home the equalizer in the 72nd minute.

“We got the goal in the first half, that’s probably subconsciously in our head a little bit,” Russell said. “Trying to defend a lead, where we showed in the first half time and time again that we were creating chances and nicking the ball and hitting them on the break.

“Second half, we just completely stopped that. We just camped in and just invited so much pressure, which is the most disappointing thing. That’s not us. We’re a high-pressing team. We keep the ball well, and we didn’t do any of that today.”

Even with the score on level terms, Salt Lake continued to push the home side and eventually found a winner in the first minute of second-half stoppage time

Breaking out on an attack down the left wing, substitute Justin Meram sent a low cross into the Kansas City box. Wood flicked it toward the goal, past Melia, and into the bottom corner of the net.

“They’re going to create chances, but they shouldn’t be creating chances like that against us and getting such clear goal-scoring opportunities like that,” Russell said. “Especially when you’ve fought so hard all year, and to give away goals like that, that sucks.”

With less than two minutes remaining, Sporting KC was unable to get level, and Real Salt Lake advanced to face Portland for a spot in the MLS Cup final.

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