Sporting Kansas City won their first playoff game in five years in nail-biting fashion, with goals from Diego Rubio, Daniel Salloi and Ilie doing just enough to hand them a 4-2 victory over a tenacious Real Salt Lake side on Sunday afternoon.
The result gave Sporting a 5-3 series win on aggregate and sent them through to the Western Conference Championship of the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs, where they will face the Portland Timbers.
Sporting started the game on the front foot and had the ball in the back of the net less than 15 minutes in, when Johnny Russell sprung Felipe Gutierrez by splitting a huge gap between the RSL center backs. Gutierrez was one-on-one with Nick Rimando, but unselfishly laid the ball off for Rubio to put away an easy chance.
Rubio's strike was the first of a five-minute one-two punch for Sporting that had them looking like they'd run away with the result. Seconds after Russell nearly found the net after blocking a clearance, Ike Opara won a header at midfield. Gutierrez jumped on the second ball and took advantage of another huge gap in the RSL defense to find Salloi for the one-on-one finish.
Sporting were back at it to start the second half, with Russell and Graham Zusi leading the way in attack. Russell set up Salloi with an exquisite backheel, only for Rimando to make a big save, minutes before Russell nearly scored himself only to see his close-range shot deflected out for a corner.
The visitors soon took advantage of Sporting's inability to score more, as Joao Plata ran free down the left and found halftime sub Sebastian Saucedo with a cutback following a poor Sporting turnover. Saucedo made no mistake with the finish, placing the ball just beyond Tim Melia's reach.
Just five minutes after Saucedo's goal, Nedum Onuoha bowled over Diego Rubio in the box just after the Chilean had taken a heavy touch towards goal. Referee Jose Carlos Rivero gave the penalty, and Ilie sent Rimando the wrong way with his chipped effort.
RSL stuck with it despite the further setback, and five minutes after Sporting had restored their two-goal cushion, their lead was back to one. Joao Plata picked up his second assist of the game when he found Damir Kreilach at the far post for a free header on a corner kick. Kreilach's third goal of the postseason set up a nervy final end to the game for the Sporting faithful.
Nick Besler, Jefferson Savarino and Luke Mulholland all had outstanding chances to give RSL the final goal they needed to advance in the final 10 minutes of the game. But Besler's choice to take a touch with a huge gap to finish allowed the Sporting defense to recover, Savarino rolled an angled shot just wide, and Mulholland saw his effort blocked after some silky play to set himself up.
That dogged effort from the Sporting defense would be enough to avoid the complete collapse and send, and Salloi struck in the final minute of stoppage time to seal the result.
- 14' – SKC – Diego Rubio | Watch
- 19' – SKC – Daniel Salloi | Watch
- 60' – RSL – Sebastian Saucedo
- 67' – SKC – Ilie | Watch
- 72' – RSL – Damir Kreilach | Watch
- 90+7' – SKC – Daniel Salloi | Watch
- BIG PICTURE: With Albert Rusnak suspended and Rookie of the Year Corey Baird out due to concussion protocol, RSL were always going to be playing with house money here, and very nearly pulled off a monumental upset. They nonetheless be disappointed with how easily they were opened up for Sporting's two first-half goals. Sporting, meanwhile, will be celebrating a well-deserved playoff win, but must now game plan for the Conference Championship first leg with Rubio, who picked up a yellow card in the second half and will be suspended due to caution accumulation.
- MOMENT OF THE MATCH: The penalty kick for Sporting KC's third goal may prove to be a big talking point after the match. Though Onuoha clearly made contact with Rubio in the box, there was plenty of doubt as to whether Rubio could have gotten to the ball before Rimando after his heavy touch. Nonetheless, the call stood and Sporting got the goal that would eventually prove decisive in the series.
- MAN OF THE MATCH: Felipe Gutierrez picked up two assists in the first half and showed why he may have been the missing midfield piece for Sporting all these years. Ilie also had a very strong game to bounce back from a rough outing at RSL one week ago.
- Sporting KC: Western Conference Championship | Sunday, November 25 at Portland (7:30 pm ET | FS1, TSN, TVAS)
- Real Salt Lake: End of season