Well, that was interesting!
After watching the wild and wacky 98 or so minutes of that 4-2 victory unfold for Sporting Kansas City, I confess I’m still not altogether certain whether their 5-3 aggregate series win makes SKC a team of destiny, or undermines their credentials as the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed.
But I think – THINK – it’s option A.
Let’s start with the other side of the coin: Real Salt Lake weren’t even supposed to be here.
It took a stunning, late LA Galaxy collapse on MLS Decision Day presented by AT&T to allow RSL to back into the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs in the first place. Then the underdog Utahns sprang a surprise on LAFC on the road in the Knockout Round. And even after they let slip a 1-0 lead at home in Leg 1 vs. Sporting, Salt Lake hung around doggedly at Children’s Mercy Park on Sunday, first rallying from a 2-0 halftime deficit and again cutting SKC’s 3-1 lead to 3-2 to set up a nerve-shredding finish for the Kansas City faithful.
That an already-imperfect RSL side -- one missing their best player (Albert Rusnak) and the 2018 AT&T MLS Rookie of the Year (Corey Baird), and featuring a brand-new, untested center-back pairing in Nick Besler and Nedum Onuoha -- gave Sporting such a hard time at their place is a credit to Mike Petke and his players.
It also poses some troubling questions for Peter Vermes and his staff, who have climbed into the MLS elite by sweating the details and planning everything down to the last centimeter.
Speaking of MLS elite: It says a lot about the reputation of Vermes and his club that we can apply that term to a team that carried this monkey on their backs for five years:
SKC will be kicking themselves for letting RSL hang around like that. Yet for a team that built its identity around a hard, stingy back line and a bruising high press that loves to grind on opponents, Kansas City looked pretty damn capable in a high-octane, run-and-gun situation.
Sporting are almost never out of contention in any game, because they are built on a sturdy system of play that’s inculcated their players with baked-in roles and identities. And this year, it’s worked better than in the past because of strong individual performances:
- They get goals from their wingers; witness Daniel Salloi’s brace on Sunday and Johnny Russell’s season-long exploits. That’s made up for relatively disappointing seasons from Yohan Croizet (3 goals, 3 assists) and Gerso Fernandes (5a/5a).
- They’ve spread the burden around; Salloi is their 2018 scoring leader with a relatively modest 11 goals, but Russell hit for 10, Chilean marksman Diego Rubio netted 8 goals and 6 assists in just 9 regular-season starts (20 appearances), Felipe Gutierrez – who unselfishly assisted on Sunday’s first two tallies – chipped in 7 and Gerso added another 5.
- There’s plenty of postseason experience, collective understanding and canny game-management skills within their ranks; Graham Zusi, Matt Besler, Roger Espinoza, Ike Opara and Seth Sinovic are tenured and productive, their underrated international contingent is highly savvy and all of them know how to get nasty when the situation calls for it.
We've talked an awful lot about Atlanta United’s prolific attack this year, but the Five Stripes only scored five more goals than Sporting did in the regular season.
And now everything seems to have lined up for SKC to get back to MLS Cup for the first time since 2013. Most of their squad is fit, firing and available, save Rubio, who’ll sit out their next game due to yellow-card accumulation (and we'll have to see about the knock sustained by pivotal midfielder Ilie Sanchez). The West’s road to the final will run through CM Park, one of the league’s true fortresses. And in the Conference Championship they’ll face the Portland Timbers, architects of maybe Kansas City’s greatest-ever postseason heartbreak, at Providence Park in 2015:
Is this Sporting’s year? The #narrative sure seems to be lining up that way.