Sporting Kansas City spent 2021 playing on the front foot, pressing high and valuing the ball.
But in Sunday's Western Conference Semifinal, those pillars were missing and largely led to their demise, a 2-1 defeat to Real Salt Lake at Children’s Mercy Park. Peter Vermes' team allowed a pair of second-half goals to two RSL substitutes, including Bobby Wood’s stoppage-time winner.
It was a bitterly disappointing end to an otherwise promising season for SKC.
“We lacked a pep in our step or something, but they were they were better team today,” SKC's manager and sporting director said in the aftermath. “That’s the easiest way to say it."
Sporting were punished when tasked with defending crosses, a season-long struggle for them. It’s how Anderson Julio leveled in the 72nd minutes, then how Wood won it in the 91st minute.
“I think we sat back too much,” SKC goalkeeper Tim Melia said. “We let them have the ball the whole game too much. Crosses have been an issue with us all year. We're not going to hide from that and it punished us in the biggest moments.”
“We didn’t close down the cross, we didn’t stop the cross when it came in, weren’t aggressive enough in the buildup to stop the cross, to defend the cross,” added Johnny Russell, who put SKC in front from the penalty spot in the 24th minute. “There’s so many errors you can pick leading up to the two goals. … When you fought so hard all year and then to give away goals like that, it sucks.”
Beyond those two strikes, Sporting lost their identity, especially in the second half.
“We didn’t expect to sit back as deep as we did. We didn't want to,” Vermes said. “We weren’t out putting pressure on them and we gave too much time and space on the ball. Even just our actions, if you look at their two goals, we have chances to win the ball, chase the guy down. We just weren’t there. We weren't in the game as we normally are for some reason.”
That’s what makes this defeat especially tough for Russell to swallow, the West's No. 3 seed falling to an upset-driven No. 7 seed.
“We looked like a team who didn’t want to lose rather than a team who wanted to go and win. … We should have had more than enough today, being at home, being in the sort of form we’re in, the way we played in the last game,” Russell said. “We weren’t anywhere near ourselves today. You can take losing at times. But when you don't give a good account of yourself, that’s the worst feeling.”
The Portland Timbers' Thanksgiving Day win over the top-seeded Colorado Rapids, and RSL’s Round One ouster of the second-seeded Seattle Sounders, made Sporting KC the highest remaining seed in the West.
Sporting knew a win against RSL would mean hosting the Conference Final against Portland, having also won their Round One game over Vancouver.
Instead, it was a painful chance wasted.
“I try to tell guys all the time: You don't get these kinds of opportunities in your life all that much, especially in the profession you're in. So when you get them, you’ve got to make sure you're ready and prepared for them,” Vermes said. “This is a missed opportunity for sure.”