Sporting KC

Sporting KC squeaks past Real Salt Lake to advance to Western Conference Finals

Sporting KC captain Matt Besler on club’s first playoff win since 2013

Sporting Kansas City defender Matt Besler talks about the teams defeat of Real Salt Lake in the MLS Western Conference semifinals on Nov. 11, 2018, the clubs first playoff win since 2013.
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Sporting Kansas City defender Matt Besler talks about the teams defeat of Real Salt Lake in the MLS Western Conference semifinals on Nov. 11, 2018, the clubs first playoff win since 2013.

Seven yards separated Daniel Salloi from an open goal, separated Sporting Kansas City from the Western Conference Finals, separated the club from its first playoff victory in five years. So as he approached the ball, Salloi jerked his head away from goal, not even looking as it tapped it home.

He’d been considering the no-look move for months, but what better opportunity? What better final punctuation of a victory that felt equal parts celebration and relief? A tongue-in-cheek expression as if to say, “Never a doubt, eh?”

Sporting Kansas City’s season is marching through to the Western Conference Finals after a 4-2 victory Sunday afternoon against Real Salt Lake at Children’s Mercy Park. Sporting KC advanced via a 5-3 aggregate score in the two-leg series, a result riddled with uncertainty until the game’s final sequence.

“I couldn’t breathe for the last 15 minutes,” Salloi said, smiling, “Because it was something else.”

In the postseason structure of survive and advance, Sporting KC took the former to its extreme sense. Because for the final quarter-hour Sunday, Real Salt Lake pinballed the ball through Sporting KC’s penalty area but just could not find the net. RSL dominated possession. It even missed a potentially open net while trying to settle the ball.

Survival, alas.

A pair of dates with Portland await. Sporting KC will open the two-game conference finals with a trip to fifth-seeded Portland on Nov. 25 before hosting the return leg on Nov. 29.

Sporting KC led 2-0 on Sunday, but Real Salt Lake would have advanced on the away goal tiebreaker if the scoreline finished either 2-2 or 3-3. And between two stints, the visitors were within one goal of making it happen for nearly a half hour before Salloi finished off the 4-2 scoreline on the last action of the game.

“We’re definitely in the playoffs now,” Sporting coach Peter Vermes said.

A scoreless draw would have suited Sporting KC just fine. This was anything but — both in its literal and symbolic form.

The method of generating the early advantage was Sporting KC at its best — pressuring the hell out of an opponent in the opening half, playing with the ball and utilizing a direct attack. And for the most visible occasion since March, midfielder Felipe Gutierrez was at the center of the latter.

From the jump.

Sporting KC struck twice in the initial 19 minutes in front of a crowd of 19,918 at Children’s Mercy Park, Gutierrez sliding passes through to the goal scorers each time. Diego Rubio was on the finishing end of the initial strike. Five minutes later, it was Salloi.

“The first 20 minutes was almost perfect,” said Rubio, who will be suspended for the first leg of the conference finals after picking up a yellow card for the second consecutive game. “This is what you want to get when you press the other team like that.”

It wouldn’t finish so flawlessly. With its season on the verge of conclusion, the final team to reach the Western Conference playoffs would not go away. Real Salt Lake twice cut the margin to a single goal. Sebastian Saucedo trimmed the lead to 2-1 in the 60th minute.

Sporting KC midfielder Ilie Sanchez re-upped to a two-goal lead from the penalty dot — picking the middle of the net after RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando handed him the ball and said, “Make sure you go to one side or the other.”

But the tense moments returned only a handful of minutes later when Damir Kreilach finished off a corner kick. The ensuing chances all fell to Real Salt Lake, and most of them in neighboring real estate to goal. But the ball did not pass goalkeeper Tim Melia a third time.

They evaporated only when Sporting KC late-game sub Yohan Croizet won a ball at midfield, bombed it to the far corner, and Salloi got on the other end. He bypassed Rimando and chased a dribbling ball just outside the six-yard box.

The no-look goal.

“That’s the loudest I’ve ever heard this place,” Melia said of the reaction from Children’s Mercy Park, which welcomed a sold-out crowd of 19,918 while competing with the afternoon Chiefs home game.

It was the first home playoff game inside the venue in nearly five years, a drought that wore on the players, coaches and ownership alike. In the days leading up to its conclusion, before captain Matt Besler spoke of the importance of playing a decisive postseason match at Children’s Mercy Park, he opened with, “It’s been too long.”

The wait for another will be considerably shorter.

“I said to myself during that flurry (of chances), ‘Look, if you can’t get through this game; if you can’t do it, then you don’t deserve to move on,’” Vermes said. “That’s just the way the playoffs are. I believe that we’re a team that can get through those moments, and we did.”

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Sam McDowell

Sam McDowell covers Sporting Kansas City, the Royals, Chiefs and sports enterprise for The Star

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