Sporting KC

Sporting KC gets a draw in Portland, moves one win shy of MLS Cup spot

The reminder of Sporting Kansas City’s recent playoff fate is forever present here in Portland, both in memory and in tangible form.

Behind the grandstand at Providence Park in the city’s downtown sits a collection of craft beer in a concession stand titled “Double Post Bar.” It’s a reference to Portland’s 2015 postseason victory against Sporting, one of a handful of the latter club’s excruciating conclusions in the past four years.

But on Sunday, Sporting KC moved one step closer to changing its recent narrative.

Sporting KC played Portland to a 0-0 draw in the opening leg of the Western Conference Finals on Sunday inside the Timbers’ home venue.

And that places Sporting in a desirable position as the series returns Thursday to Children’s Mercy Park:

Win. And in.

“It’s 90 minutes at home to get to the championship final,” Sporting KC midfielder Ilie Sanchez said. “It’s a dream for us.”

With the aggregate scoring format in the two-game series, Sporting KC needs only a victory on its home field to advance to the MLS Cup for the first time since it lifted the trophy in 2013. A scoreless draw Thursday would prompt extra time in Kansas City to determine a series winner. A draw of any other kind would give Portland the spot in the league’s championship game against either Atlanta or the New York Red Bulls because of the away goal tiebreaker. Atlanta won the first leg of the Eastern Conference Finals 3-0 earlier Sunday.

The playoff structure motivates the road team in the initial match to be content with any result, even as coach Peter Vermes insists he refuses to play simply for a draw. But for the most part, the Sporting KC locker room was just that. Content. Because at times early Sunday, it felt like mere survival against a Portland club that supplied the match’s most enticing chances.

Sporting KC goalkeeper Tim Melia made six saves, including a sprawling catch in the 80th minute.

“We competed for everything,” Melia said. “There wasn’t an inch for anyone out there. I think in these last couple of games, you’re really starting to see the effort and the commitment and just how important this is to all of us. You can’t really ask for more than that. Obviously you want to win these games, but you can’t win it all in the first leg. We get to go in front of our fans, and if we win, we’re through.”

A frantic, foul-filled opening half gave way to a more evenly-sided second half. But the best chance still fell to Portland.

The Timbers punctured the scoreboard in the 70th minute, only to have the goal negated by an offside call. After David Guzman headed the ball into the back of the net — sending green and yellow celebration smoke into the air at Providence Park — the assistant referee slowly placed his flag in the air.

A better fortune than Sporting’s last playoff appearance at Providence Park. In 2015, Sporting twice hit the post in a penalty kick shootout, and had either attempt crossed the goal line, Kansas City would have advanced. Saad Abdul-Salaam’s shot actually connected with both posts, hence the “Double Post Bar.” Portland would march on to its first MLS Cup championship. The outcome prolonged Sporting KC’s winless streak in the playoffs, which stretched to four matches before a victory against Real Salt Lake in this month’s Western Conference semifinals.

One of those posts actually came to Sporting’s aid Sunday. Overdue, perhaps. In the sixth minute, Portland defender Jorge Villafana ripped a low liner off the woodwork on the same goal that Abdul-Salaam connected with three years earlier in the fateful shootout.

A sequence indicative of the evening.

“Better than a loss. I would have rather won,” as Vermes put it, a summation of his players’ words. “We have to get home and get ready for the final. That’s what it is.”

The wait for this match — an appearance in the conference finals — was than five years in the making. Sporting KC had not advanced past the knockout round since its 2013 MLS championship. And the wait to arrive in Portland was delayed, too. Sporting KC’s charter flight to the Pacific Northwest was re-routed to Eugene, Ore., because of fog and visibility issues in Portland. The team took a two-hour bus ride to Portland to complete its trip.

Worth the wait, as it turns out.

The task of the first leg was completed Sunday. Over 34 games this season, Sporting KC earned the No. 1 seed in the West and the right to put the deciding game in its backyard.

“We have everything in our hands,” captain Matt Besler said. “We know if we take care of business in front of our fans, we go to MLS Cup.”