Sporting KC

Knocked out: Portland eliminates Sporting KC from MLS playoffs in conference finals

Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes reacts to playoff loss to Portland

Sporting Kansas City coach Peter Vermes reacts to the teams 3-2 playoff loss to the Portland Timbers, sending them on to the 2018 MLS Cup.
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Sporting Kansas City coach Peter Vermes reacts to the teams 3-2 playoff loss to the Portland Timbers, sending them on to the 2018 MLS Cup.

The keepsakes from Sporting Kansas City’s most treasured accomplishments were long tucked away in an office inside Children’s Mercy Park, a collection of trophies typically just sitting on the floor. Peter Vermes recently insisted on a permanent home, and so the club constructed a trophy case inside its new training facility. As an employee was installing the cubbyholes, one per trophy, Vermes interrupted.

“And what if we get another one?” Vermes asked.

The second leg of the Western Conference Finals on Thursday afforded Sporting KC an unwanted element to solve that dilemma.

Time.

Portland came from behind to end Sporting Kansas City’s best playoff run in five seasons, marching out of Children’s Mercy Park with a 3-2 victory Thursday that left the home locker room every bit as stunned as disappointed.

The fifth-seeded Timbers advanced to the MLS Cup — Dec. 8 in Atlanta — on aggregate scoring after the two teams had played to a scoreless draw in the opening leg Sunday in Portland.

“It will take awhile to get over this,” captain Matt Besler said.

“That’s gonna stick with you for a long time,” Vermes added.

A Sporting KC club that spent the majority of the 2018 season jockeying for the top spot in the Western Conference put itself on just as comfortable footing Thursday. In total control, actually.

And then? Gone.

Portland pounced three times after halftime — its only three shots on goal in the game — to erase the opener from Daniel Salloi and provide enough cushion to survive the answer from Gerso Fernandes. Portland midfielder Diego Valeri scored his second goal of the night in the final minute to secure the spot in the MLS final, but it wasn’t needed, with Portland holding the away goal tiebreaker just the same.

A span of nine minutes early in the second half guided the Timbers there. In those nine minutes, Sporting KC migrated from one half shy of booking a charter flight to Atlanta to its coach circling the field, pleading with fans to stop throwing garbage onto the pitch.

The club’s potential sprouted the sting. For four straight seasons, Sporting KC has felt the disappointment of a season concluded early, an ending that featured some sort of heartbreak.

Those teams were playoff teams. This one had potential for more. Potential to add a spot in the new trophy case.

“We were really close,” Besler said. “The margin between winning and losing is so small in this league, especially in the playoffs, and we were on the wrong end of it.”

It all looked so promising early. Salloi broke through 20 minutes into the first half, providing Sporting KC a 1-0 lead inside a venue it dropped just two games during the regular season. Portland did not even record a shot on goal in the opening half. Sporting KC thoroughly controlled the play. It even had a couple of goals discounted that would have pushed the margin further.

The halftime message was simple: More.

Vermes didn’t want his team bunkering to protect a lead. He instructed them to push forward, even mentioning that the initial 15 minutes of the second half would decide the match.

Prophetic.

The game had a precise turning point, and it arrived in the 52nd minute, an utterly world-class strike from Sebastian Blanco that outstretched Sporting goalkeeper Tim Melia and splashed the upper netting. Nine minutes later, Valeri gave Portland a 2-1 lead.

“We gave away sloppy goals when we couldn’t afford to give them anything,” Sporting winger Johnny Russell said.

Given that away goals are used as a tiebreaker, Sporting KC needed two to win.

Fernandes scored the first in the 81st minute. But an offense that broke a franchise record for goals could not produce the one it needed most.

“We were all over them in that first half. If we were able to get another goal, it would’ve made life really tough on them,” Sporting KC defender Ike Opara said. “They didn’t have any life really until that goal. That’s the frustrating part. We suffocated them and did everything we wanted to do, and a wonder goal changes it all for them.”

Vermes praised the Timbers’ goals, but Sporting KC offered the scorers too much room with which to maneuver, he said. After his club blitzed Portland in the first 45 minutes, there was a tentative nature after the emergence from the locker room.

“We didn’t do our jobs,” midfielder Ilie Sanchez said. “That’s the frustrating part, knowing it was our fault. At the end, we are, in my opinion, the best team in the Western Conference all season. But tonight was a key moment for us, and we could not do our job.”

Thus, this is how it ends for Sporting KC. On its home field. Needing only a victory to advance to its first MLS Cup since it lifted the trophy in 2013.

Before the match, former Sporting KC players carried the club’s championship trophies onto the field. Jimmy Nielsen had the 2013 MLS Cup, which until this season stood as the club’s latest playoff victory.

The offseason was designed to change that. A striker was placed atop the offseason wish list, its most obvious solution to a goal-scoring scarcity.

The striker never came.

The offense did. Sporting KC broke a franchise record with 65 goals, an achievement reached by committee rather than dependence on one player.

In the moments after the match, Vermes walked into the locker room and thanked the players for the season. It was an enjoyable group, he said. The most talented one he’s ever assembled, too.

But it’s not his most accomplished.

“We have a good group of guys — they’ve proven they’re a good team in a lot of ways,” Vermes said. “But obviously we got some more work to do.”

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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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