The roar was more a mix of relief than elation, intensifying once the reality of the situation finally sunk in.
Sporting Kansas City waited until the final day of the MLS season to clinch a playoff spot, the club’s fifth-consecutive trip to the postseason. Wasted opportunities over the last week dwindled hope for some, and fingernails others. It culminated in a primetime matchup against the defending MLS Cup champion and its star-studded cast led by Robbie Keane, Steven Gerrard and Giovani dos Santos.
Up and down the finale was until surprising super-sub Benny Feilhaber waltzed into space and slid a pass to Dom Dwyer. The entire stadium perked up, rose to their feet and collectively held their breath as Dwyer took a touch and then his shot.
Back of the net, exhale, and then celebration.
Thanks to the goal, Sporting KC will now begin its playoff run against the Timbers at 9 p.m. Central on Thursday in Portland, Ore.
“I think it was the performance that we needed going into the playoffs,” captain Matt Besler said after the match. “Obviously it got us in. I know the way the results worked out we were in anyway, but we really wanted to play well tonight and earn it. I think it was a total team performance.”
Here are three thoughts on the victory:
Benny Feilhaber delivers in the clutch
Entering Sunday, Feilhaber had started all but three games this season. He’d delivered double-digit goals and assists, and provided moments of individual brilliance worth replaying over and over again.
In other words, it’s safe to say even he was surprised to see his name omitted from the starting lineup in the biggest game of the regular season. But lo and behold, Feilhaber still came through in the clutch, even if it wasn’t in his expected role.
“I don’t think he had enough in his gas tank to go 90 minutes,” Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes said. “Better to use him in the second half to come on and do what he did. Pretty simple.”
Vermes said the decision came from physical data gathered after the Colorado game and his assessment from that film. Whatever the reasoning, it was the right choice.
Jordi Quintilla was a fine replacement for 45 minutes, holding the ball long enough for the defense to regain its shape and for the forwards to push up the field. Feilhaber checked on and shook up that formula. He found space to work in, something he expected to see based on previous meetings, and delivered true scoring chances, including the game-winner.
Feilhaber has been the best midfielder in Major League Soccer this season, but how good?
Sporting KC enters play-in game with different mindset
Last season, Sporting KC’s playoff run ended before it ever really began with a low-key 2-1 loss to the New York Red Bulls. It was a defeat many sensed coming after a sluggish second half of the season.
Despite a similar bumpy road down the stretch this season, Sporting KC believes the parallels stop there.
“It's a completely different feeling from last year,” Besler said. “However many guys were here last year would say the exact same thing. We're ready. We're not ready for the season to be over with. We're feeling very good physically, mentally. Guys are coming back from injury, and they're begging us to continue to play to give them a chance to get back on the field. We're really excited to see what we can do.”
There’s good reason to believe those words, too. First off, Sporting KC has been competitive in nearly every game over the last two months. The same can’t be said for last season, where mistakes were rooted in personnel rather than the moment-to-moment action. From the eye-test alone, Sporting KC has a lot left in the tank, and that’s with players returning, too.
In an unpredictable Western Conference, anything can happen.
Plus, it doesn’t hurt getting a huge win to step into postseason play with.
“I will say when we do play like that, we know what we're capable of,” Besler said. “We just beat the defending champions. We have to have the confidence and know that when we have the right mentality and the right work rate, we can beat any team in the league.”
MLS Decision Day was fun, entertaining and a success
Decision Day was designed for chaos, and that is exactly what transpired on the final day of the Major League Soccer regular season.
Sporting KC spent the better part of 15 minutes out of playoff contention before sealing its fate on Dwyer’s score. The Seattle Sounders blitzed Real Salt Lake and, at one point, came within one goal of the second seed and a bye. They eventually landed in fourth. The Red Bulls grabbed the Supporters Shield, but not before Chicago nearly answered in stoppage time to the benefit of FC Dallas.
Major League Soccer is zany and unpredictable in these ways, and the league elevated it with Decision Day. If you’re going to do something, go all out, and MLS certainly did so with a strong marketing push leading up to an entertaining slate of games Sunday.
The only critique of Decision Day is that it took so long to finally happen.
▪ I asked Tim Melia once again about his big year, becoming the starting goalkeeper, winning the U.S. Open Cup and now securing a playoff spot: “I’m still as focused as ever. I don’t want to be here for just a season and win one trophy. I want to be the starter here for a long time and win a lot of trophies and give these fans what they deserve.”