An exhilarating start had crumbled into a hollow finish for Sporting Kansas City late Thursday night, and now, after the early thunder at Children’s Mercy Park, the most notable noise in the Sporting Kansas City postgame locker room was the sound of backslaps from farewell hugs and hushed attempts at perspective.
Even as they acknowledged the anguish of the moment after the 3-2 loss to Portland, some tried to muster the big-picture view. Goalkeeper Tim Melia called the season itself “phenomenal” and Daniel Salloi called it “great,” adding that “we’re not going to get worse, we’re going to get better next year,” and even coach Peter Vermes offered this conciliatory take:
“At the end of the day, I think the guys accomplished a lot this year,” he said. “I think they’ve evolved as a team, they played very well, it was an enjoyable group to coach on a daily basis. And we’ve got a lot more ahead of us, and we’re (moving) in a good direction.”
All of which sure seems true. But one other point loomed largest — an opportunity missed, a game that should have been won.
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After being eliminated in the knockout round of the playoffs the last four years since winning the 2013 MLS Cup, this was a team equipped to have a chance to play for the MLS Cup again. By Vermes’ reckoning just earlier this week, this was “by far … the most talented group since I’ve been here as a coach.”
And it had apparent control of this game early before an animated crowd of 20,091 (more on that later) that included the likes of Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce of the Chiefs leading the “I believe” chant.
It felt meant to be, didn’t it?
The first half, Matt Besler said, maybe couldn’t have been drawn-up better “performance-wise” … albeit with two disallowed goals. Sporting had “suffocated” Portland, as Ike Opara put it.
Portland “didn’t have any life, really,” Opara said. “Until that goal.”
Meaning the nearly 35-yard blast by Sebastian Blanco early in the second half. The play Opara would aptly characterize as a “wonder goal” left Sporting wandering.
Minutes later, they were behind 2-1 and suddenly needing two goals to advance through the Western Conference Finals in the aggregate scoring — because the teams played to a scoreless draw in the opening leg Sunday in Portland and the Timbers held the away goals tiebreaker.
Sporting tied it and had fertile chances to resume the lead in the waning minutes … only for Diego Valeri of the Timbers to score his second goal of the night, ending any suspense.
His first led to another blemish, with several fans throwing debris on the field, apparently believing he was offside. Replays indicated otherwise, but that wasn’t enough to prevent the spectacle of players being called off the field and Vermes stalking out solo to implore them to stop.
“Never want to see that again; I just don’t think that has any place in the game,” he said, noting that Sporting fans usually are “incredible, but that was a low moment.”
So, of course, was the final result, a function of the oddity of Portland scoring on its only three shots on goal and at least the appearance of Sporting becoming tentative in the second half after failing to land a potential KO in the first half.
“We were all over them … If we were able to get another goal, it would have made life really tough on them,” Opara said.
Instead, it was tough on Sporting and their fans. And now all that’s left is a too-familiar aftertaste after another bitter end even to a season of marked growth.
“We took a really big step as a team this year, in the way that we played,” Besler said. “We brought a lot of guys in who brought a lot to our team and adapted immediately.”
Even so, Besler said, disappointment ruled the day. And the best legacy can only be this:
“Hopefully,” Opara said, “we let this sting throughout the whole offseason.”