With nothing but 12 yards of freshly cut Bermuda grass between him and the ball, Tim Melia stared into the face of a man who had scored over 485 professional goals for club and country.
That man — Zlatan Ibrahimovic — lined up for his 11th penalty kick since coming to America to play Major League Soccer. He was a perfect 10-for-10 from the penalty spot for the L.A. Galaxy.
But he’d also never faced Melia, who had saved eight penalties since the start of 2016.
Diving far to his left, Melia got his hands on Ibrahimovic’s sweetly struck shot. But due to the power on the strike, all Melia could do was parry it straight back to Ibrahimovic, who then returned the ball into an empty net.
It was a perfect microcosm of Kansas City’s season — a brief moment of hope before things came crashing down. Ibrahimovic’s 32nd-minute goal was the first of seven by the Galaxy and one of three scored by the Swede as L.A. defeated Sporting KC 7-2 Sunday night in Carson, California.
Six of the Galaxy’s goals came in the second half.
“They scored all their chances and we missed all of ours. Everything fell their way,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said. “Guy mis-kicks the ball, goes off the bounce to a guy on his head. Everything they had went their way and the chances that they had, they finished them.”
The result is surely the final of many daggers to Kansas City’s playoff hopes. And it came after Portland, San Jose and FC Dallas all lost earlier in the weekend, opening an unlikely door for Sporting KC to get right back in the playoff race.
Sporting KC now sits six points back from the final playoff spot with a goal difference of negative-10.
Things looked good early for Sporting KC, who took a 1-0 lead in the 24th minute. Receiving the ball out wide, Gerso Fernandes played a quick pass inside to Felipe Gutierrez, who made a composed finish past Galaxy goalkeeper David Bingham.
The Galaxy had dominated possession, but good defensive work on the transition play, especially around L.A.’s Jonathan Dos Santos, allowed the visitors to keep things tight until a handball by Matt Besler in the penalty box allowed L.A. to equalize from the penalty spot before halftime.
The floodgates opened in the final 45 minutes.
L.A. scored two goals within the opening five minutes of the second half. Sporting KC’s Graham Smith was caught out of position on the second when he lunged unnecessarily at Ibrahimovic on a cross, leaving Joe Corona open to head in his first goal of the season.
Two minutes later, Smith again lunged at the ball around Ibrahimovic. This time, Ibrahimovic controlled the ball himself before firing home from close range.
“I think the game was back and forth in the first half,” Vermes said. “I think that we did a very good job in the first half of winning a lot of balls in transition.
“And so in the second half, when they scored — the first goal comes off a ball that, if it’s not Ibrahimovi … Smith goes out to head the ball out and (Ibrahimovic) runs into Smith. Unfortunately, if that’s the other way around, if we’re in the box and we do that, we get called for a foul. He doesn’t.”
Uriel Antuna slotted an open goal in the 69th minute and Sebastian Lletget added two more goals in three minutes to make it 6-1.
Ibrahimovic completed his hat trick in the 85th minute with a well-placed shot to the bottom right corner for the Galaxy’s seventh and final goal.
Felipe Gutierrez managed to pull one back following Ibrahimovic’s third goal, but it was too little, too late.
While Gutierrez’s strike from 25 yards out would make an end-of-season highlight reel — ignoring the final scoreline — it was far from the easiest chance that Sporting KC had among its 20 shots on goal.
“We had point-blank chances, at least four, if not five, right in front of the goal that we have to score,” Vermes said.