Goalkeeper Tim Melia saved all three penalty kicks in a decisive shootout on Sunday as top-seeded Sporting Kansas City defeated the No. 8 seed San Jose Earthquakes 3-0 on penalties following an unforgettable 3-3 draw in Round One of the Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs on Sunday afternoon at sunny Children’s Mercy Park.
Roger Espinoza gave Sporting an early lead in Sunday’s instant classic before the Earthquakes surged ahead through Carlos Fierro and Shea Salinas. After Ilie Sanchez pulled Sporting level in the opening moments of the second half, 18-year-old Gianluca Busio became the youngest MLS player to record a goal and an assist in a playoff match by firing the hosts into a 3-2 lead on 91 minutes. Not to be outdone, all-time MLS leading scorer Chris Wondolowski salvaged a last-gasp equalizer for San Jose to force extra time.
After a goalless extra time session, Melia delivered the heroics by saving spot kicks from San Jose’s Osvaldo Alanis, Jackson Yueill and Cristian Espinoza to improve to 6-0 in penalty shootouts throughout his career. Sporting’s Johnny Russell, Ilie Sanchez and Khiry Shelton all converted their attempts to vault Manager Peter Vermes’ men into the next round of the playoffs, capping one of the greatest games in Children’s Mercy Park history.
With a momentous Round One triumph under their belts, Sporting has advanced to the Western Conference Semifinals and will host No. 4 seed Minnesota United FC on Dec. 1 or 2. Season Ticket Members will have access to an exclusive ticket presale for the match beginning this Monday, Nov. 23, at 10 a.m. CT. Any remaining tickets will then go on sale to the general public starting at 10 a.m. CT this Tuesday, Nov. 24.
The hosts needed just four minutes to land their first haymaker, capitalizing on a Johnny Russell corner kick in front of the sun-drenched Members Stand. The Scottish international whipped an in-swinging delivery into the six-yard area, where Espinoza glanced a perfect header across San Jose goalkeeper J.T. Marcinkowski and into the left corner of the net.
Making his 300th appearance for Sporting in all competitions, Espinoza recorded his first career playoff goal on the play and the second-earliest playoff goal in club history. Russell, meanwhile, became the fifth MLS player to hit 25 goals and 25 assists since the start of 2018 as Sporting scored for the 16th straight home game dating back to August 2019.
With momentum on their side, Sporting threatened twice more through Gerso Fernandes before the 10-minute mark. The pacey winger squared up defender Nick Lima on the left edge of the box before seeing his low drive smothered by Marcinkowski, then had another shot saved after he received a pass from 18-year-old playoff debutant Gianluca Busio, who on Sunday became the youngest Sporting player to appear in a postseason match.
After weathering a turbulent opening quarter-hour, San Jose settled into proceedings and manufactured their equalizer in the 22nd minute. Winger Cristian Espinoza corralled a looping diagonal ball from Marcos Lopez and unfurled a low, driven cross into the penalty area that deflected kindly into the path of Fierro. The Mexican’s bouncing attempt pinged off the head of Sporting defender Roberto Puncec and redirected fortuitously into the net past helpless goalkeeper Tim Melia, whose MLS shutout streak ended at 291 minutes.
The Earthquakes took their first lead of the afternoon in the 34th minute. Cristian Espinoza was once again involved in the buildup, chasing a Fierro long ball down the right channel and squaring low for Salinas, who picked out the left corner with a right-footed finish near the penalty spot. Like Sporting’s Espinoza, Salinas entered MLS in 2008 and on Sunday ended a 12-year wait for his first career tally in the MLS Cup Playoffs.
Two minutes into the second, half, Sporting restored parity by cashing in on yet another set piece. This time Ilie latched onto Busio’s right-footed in-swinger and glanced a header that took the slightest of touches off his own back before nestling into the right corner. Busio notably stamped his name as the youngest MLS player to record a playoff assist this season as Sporting scored their 10th goal off a corner kick in 2020, three more than any other team.
Both sides showed attacking initiative as the contest ebbed and flowed in thrilling fashion. Gerso asked further questions of the San Jose backline in the 53rd minute, embarking on a lung-busting run down the right flank only to see his shot blocked by the retreating Florian Jungwirth. Four minutes later, Khiry Shelton—making his 100th career MLS appearance—cushioned a Russell set piece that afforded Winston Reid a shooting opportunity, but the New Zealand center back hammered high over the woodwork.
The teams exchanged half-chances midway through the half, with Melia doing well to collect Cristian Espinoza’s deflected strike on 64 minutes and Russell curling a free kick over the crossbar at the 70-minute mark.
The dying embers of regulation were nothing short of stunning. In the 89th minute, Melia produced a phenomenal reflex save to push Wondolowski’s close-range header onto the left post after the predatory forward connected on a Nick Lima cross.
Children’s Mercy Park erupted on the other end in the 91st minute when Busio thought he had decided the match. Another galloping burst from Gerso culminated with a low cross from the left flank that reached Khiry Shelton at the edge of the six-yard area. On his 100th career MLS appearance, Shelton played a brilliant backheel pass to an open Busio, who made no mistake by slotting low past Marcinkowski and igniting rapturous celebrations across the stadium.
Undeterred, the Earthquakes snatched an unlikely equalizer on one of the final kicks of regulation. With 97 minutes on the clock, Cristian Espinoza whipped a teasing ball to the far post for Wondolowski to head past Melia and send the barnburner into extra time. Wondolowski now has 11 MLS goals against Sporting in his storied career and has struck four times in San Jose’s last four matches.
Extra time was barren of clear-cut chances until the 112th minute, when a pinballing scrum ended with Sporting substitute Erik Hurtado unleashing a shot that Jungwirth lunged to critically block. Some 60 seconds later, 17-year-old San Jose substitute Cade Cowell galloped down the right sideline and prompted Melia to make a strong save at the near post. Referee Nima Saghafi blew his full-time whistle shortly thereafter, drawing a close to the six-goal encounter and setting up a penalty shootout to decide the winner.
Melia dominated the shootout as an electric Children’s Mercy Park crowd fed on the goalkeeper’s colossal presence between the posts. By turning away three consecutive San Jose attempts, Melia gave Sporting the first 3-0 penalty shootout result in MLS history.
Sunday’s showdown marked only the third time in Sporting history that the team has rallied from a deficit at any point in the match to win in the playoffs. The club also prevailed on penalties in the 2013 MLS Cup after trailing to Real Salt Lake and earned a comeback win over FC Dallas in its inaugural playoff match in 1996.