The race for the Western Conference's top seed just got much more interesting.
Following Saturday’s dramatic 2-1 victory over the Seattle Sounders at Lumen Field, Sporting Kansas City have pulled themselves within three points of Seattle for the No. 1 spot on the Western Conference table. That's with four games to go and a game in hand, setting up a dogfight down the stretch ahead of the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs.
Here are three takeaways coming off this clash of Western Conference heavyweights.
The most talked-about play wasn’t any of the three goals, but rather a wild sequence with the game tied 1-1 in the 55th minute that saw Sporting KC goalkeeper Tim Melia perform a full-body takedown on Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan as the latter jockeyed for positioning for a ball that had popped up in the air near the goal-line.
The play set the internet on fire almost immediately, going viral outside MLS circles and even drawing commentary from none other than Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, with much of the discourse centering around referee Ismail Elfath’s decision to tag Melia with a yellow card instead of sending him off.
Should Sporting’s veteran backstop have seen red?
“I honestly don’t know because I didn’t get an explanation,” Roldan told reporters after the match. “I want to hear what Howard Webb has to say about it, I want to hear what Ismail puts in his notes. Frustrating nonetheless because I felt that I had good positioning. I didn’t hear a whistle until the ball was cleared out and I was shoved to the ground. So, I want to hear an explanation on what happened, because I still don’t know.”
PRO Referees later explained the decision, saying that "the observable conduct by Tim Melia did not rise to violent conduct due to the lack of brutality."
Wherever you come down on the issue, expect that one to be featured prominently on the next episode of MLSsoccer.com’s Instant Replay.
Leading up to the game, Seattle noted the need to do whatever they could to slow down Sporting KC winger Johnny Russell, who has developed a reputation for his propensity for scoring goals against the Sounders in recent years.
For nearly 80 minutes, Seattle did a decent job of that, with Russell having a relatively quiet match by his standards into the stretch run. But the Scottish attacker showed exactly why he’s such a lethal threat, finding a clinical winner at the back-end of a counterattack for what stood as the decisive strike.
Russell has now scored in seven straight MLS matches, breaking the SKC record previously held by MLS legend Preki, who's now an assistant coach for the Sounders. On top of that, it delivered a truly huge result for Sporting, which hold a game in hand on Seattle and four games to make up the three points that separate them from the No. 1 seed. However it pans out, it sets up for a fascinating end to the season.
"I scored in Vancouver, that was to break the record, but it meant nothing to me because we lost the game,” Russell said postmatch, referencing his goal in last week's loss to the Whitecaps. “This one’s a bit different. You get a goal against one of the top sides in the league to win the game. Those ones mean more. I spoke to Preki before the game as well, he just congratulated me and said records are there to be broken. So that was a nice touch from him.
“I’ve got a pretty good record against Seattle so in games like that when it’s top of the table, games are decided in those moments and I’m just happy that I put it away to help the team out.”
There’s no other way to view it for the Sounders other than a missed opportunity, as even a draw would have left Seattle feeling pretty comfortable ahead of their final three games. Now, the Rave Green are very much looking over their shoulder and have hit a bit of a lull by going three straight matches without a win.
Asked about where the team stands mentality-wise after the defeat, Sounders midfielder Kelyn Rowe said it simply means they have to recognize the diminished margin of error.
“It sucks, I don’t think it’s a setback,” Rowe said. “Look, we’re still in first place by three points. This is going to make it a little harder for us and it does hurt. We could’ve had an easier run into that first-place spot into the playoffs. But we made a mistake and it cost us. Now, we can’t make any more to make sure we’re in first place. That means we have to have a playoff mentality for three more games going into the playoffs that could help us in many ways. So, we have to make sure we’re on the front foot at all times the next three games.”
Schmetzer said after the match that star forward Raul Ruidiaz was “a couple hours” from arriving back from Peru, where he re-aggravated a hamstring injury he initially suffered in Seattle’s match against the San Jose Earthquakes on Sept. 29. The status of their most prolific goal-scorer, as well as the potential returns of Jordan Morris and Nicolas Lodeiro, will be top of mind for Seattle between now and the start of the playoffs.