Over the last four seasons, Sporting Kansas City has relished the drama of penalty shootouts, winning three trophies on such occasions.
On Thursday, Sporting KC got to experience the punishing, gut-wrenching, unfortunate other side of penalties. After 11 rounds, which included the most bizarre cruel attempt possibly ever seen in an MLS shootout, Sporting KC’s season came to an end in Portland, Ore., with the Timbers winning 7-6 in penalties.
Leaning on an inexperienced, 22-year-old backup goalkeeper, Sporting KC found itself again on the cusp of another improbable shootout victory.
Then the unthinkable happened.
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“We’ve been on the other end of it,” Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes said after the match. “I know how it is. That’s just the way it goes sometimes.”
He added: “We had three chances to win (in the shootout). You can’t ask for anymore than that. Today we just couldn’t pull it out.”
Here are three thoughts on the match:
Sporting KC’s rookies shine under pressure
Saad Abdul-Salaam and Amadou Dia came to Kansas City earlier this year hoping to impress their new teammates and coaches enough to simply buy a little bit of playing time during their rookie campaigns.
Try a whole lot of playing time.
The two defenders logged more than 2,300 minutes during the regular season, then were called upon to start in a do-or-die playoff road game in what is arguably the most intimidating environment in MLS. As they did all season long, the duo thrived under the pressure.
Manning the flanks, Abdul-Salaam and Dia combined for eight interceptions, seven clearances and seven recoveries against a speedy Timbers side. Unlike the previous meeting in Portland, the Timbers worked down the flanks, looking to exploit their speed against Sporting KC’s inexperience.
Instead, Abdul-Salaam and Dia stopped oncoming attacks, delivered easy balls and, for the most part, eliminated costly turnovers.
Vermes and staff, as well as the entire Sporting KC front office, deserves to be commended for a successful draft class that also included Connor Hallisey. There’s a future for all three in Kansas City and MLS.
Wonder boy Nemeth stuns Portland faithful once again
Who would’ve thought earlier this season that the former Liverpool player tearing up MLS would be Krisztian Nemeth and not L.A. Galaxy’s Steven Gerrard?
On Thursday, He followed up a moment of brilliance against the Timbers earlier this month with a go-ahead goal in extra time, firing a top-shelf rocket from a ridiculous angle.
Nemeth’s skill followed the atypical Sporting KC rough-and-tough will shown by homegrown defender Kevin Ellis, who sent the game into extra time by leaping over a much-taller Liam Ridgewell to head in a goal.
Sporting KC probably waited too long to get Nemeth actively involved in the game, but he’s shown time and time again he needs just one little window of opportunity to change the course of an entire game. He’ll be a key component to Sporting KC’s 2016 campaign.
Kempin gave Sporting KC chance after chance
Give the man a lot of credit. He didn’t expect to be in that situation, forced to come on because of a freak head injury to Tim Melia, but the 22-year-old homegrown keeper stepped up and made four saves in the shootout, more than one-third of the penalties he faced. He even pulled out the old Jimmy Nielsen PK sheet.
Sporting KC’s veterans couldn’t come through in the clutch, but Kempin’s performance was a microcosm of the season. Moving to a more competitive Western Conference, Sporting KC outlasted injuries, international call-ups and a dozen questions about last season’s late collaspe – largely asked by me – and still made (mostly positive) things happen.
Some will question whether or not this season was successful for Sporting KC. But with a trophy, CONCACAF Champions League berth, and a fifth-straight trip to the playoffs – this year’s showing being much, much different than a year ago – it’s pretty clear that it was.
At worst, Sporting KC overachieved, but I’d bet you there are eight other MLS teams wishing they could say that if it meant the type of success Sporting KC had in 2015.