KANSAS CITY, Kan.—In what was a wild MLS Decision Day presented by AT&T, Sporting KC’s 2-1 victory over LAFC at first glance might seem relatively straightforward. But a second-half red card that could’ve turned the tide in the Western Conference was negated by Daniel Salloi’s shorthanded strike, and Sporting KC claimed first place in the West.
Sporting’s objective throughout the 2018 MLS regular season was to ensure a home match in the playoffs, something they hadn’t been able to do since the 2013 MLS Cup final. They'll have that, as well as home-field advantage throughout conference play in the postseason -- and possibly on to MLS Cup, if they go that far (barring a match against RBNY or Atlanta).
Had Sporting celebrated the feat of landing that home playoff game and finishing first in the West? "No," said head coach Peter Vermes after the match.
But he was a little more celebratory from there, and reveled in what it meant for Sporting to finish first, especially in the fashion in which they won their final regular season match, after going down to 10 men in a game where the winner would take the No. 1 seed in the West.
“Being able to not only defend, but to get a game winner at that point says a lot about the group,” said Vermes. “And then the final piece is that this game tonight was not a league match, it was a final. And I think we played it like a final. We left everything out there on the field and we were victorious.”
Sporting KC were up 1-0 to the 63rd minute, when Seth Sinovic picked up a straight red card for denial of an obvious goalscoring opportunity following a Video Review. After the ensuing penalty kick conversion by Carlos Vela made it 1-1, Sporting KC still could have landed first place in the West if they had battened down the hatches and played for a draw. But they weren't content to sit back, and took advantage of an opportunity to retake the lead through Daniel Salloi in the 72nd minute.
“Mentality is a really interesting thing,” Vermes said. “It’s not like you just flick a switch and you just change a mentality. It takes a long time to build confidence, it takes a long time to build a mentality, it takes a long time build a culture, and what our guys were is that they were disciplined in that moment to be able to do the right thing at the right time.”
The ejection and penalty kick seemed like it could have been the pivotal point in the match for Sporting. Sinovic didn’t agree with the red card.
“[Referee Allen Chapman] told me he saw the video and that it was 100 percent a hand ball,” Sinovic told MLSsoccer.com. “I know where it hit me. It hit me in the pocket of the armpit. The problem is my arm is holding the post so it looks a lot worse than it was. I think it’s harsh, that’s all I can say.”
Despite the contentious nature of the call, Sporting didn’t let it shake their mentality and Salloi stepped up yet again. Until last Wednesday, Salloi hadn’t scored a goal since July 28th, but Sunday's strike was his fourth goal in three games and third consecutive game-winning tally.
Salloi reflected on his breakout at the exact time Sporting KC needed it.
“As a forward you always have ups and downs,” Salloi said. “Once you start scoring, there is games where it just comes naturally. Everything bounces in front of you. It comes naturally and I hope it continues into the playoffs. But what’s great about this team as that if one person doesn’t score, the other one will. There is always somebody who steps up and this is why we are capable of winning the cup, and that’s our plan.”