Courtesy of Sporting Kansas City
Sporting Kansas City (17-10-7, 58 points) fell 1-0 to Real Salt Lake (14-14-6, 48 points) in a tense and controversial regular season finale on Sunday at Children’s Mercy Park.
Damir Kreilach struck the game’s lone goal in the 95th minute, vaulting Real Salt Lake into the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs at the expense of a Sporting side that finishes third in the Western Conference.
With the regular season in the rearview mirror, Sporting will now prepare for the opening round of the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs against No. 6 seed Vancouver Whitecaps FC. Tickets for the conference quarterfinal matchup are available at SeatGeek.com and further details, including date, kickoff time and broadcast information, will be announced on Monday.
Taking the field for the fifth time in 16 days, Sporting Kansas City fielded a lineup that included three changes from a 3-1 midweek loss at Austin FC. Midfielders Roger Espinoza and Jose Mauri replaced Gadi Kind and Ilie Sanchez, while 21-year-old Sporting KC Academy product Grayson Barber stepped in for rested captain Johnny Russell to make his first career home start at Children’s Mercy Park. Elsewhere, veteran goalkeeper Tim Melia notably surpassed 20,000 minutes played for Sporting in all competitions and left back Luis Martins became the second defender in club history to appear in every match of a 34-game regular season.
The lion’s share of early possession went to Sporting, a team that had defeated RSL by a 2-0 scoreline on Decision Day a year ago to clinch the West’s top seed in the 2020 postseason. Forward Khiry Shelton was first to threaten inside five minutes, swiveling past a defender and forcing a save from David Ochoa with a long-range strike.
RSL responded with a well-orchestrated move of their own in the 11th minute. Albert Rusnak’s floated set piece was chested down in the penalty area by Rubio Rubin, who could only lash his off-balance shot wayward into the stands. Not long later at the opposite end, Daniel Salloi connected with a tantalizing Graham Zusi cross and poked marginally wide of the target.
The rest of the first half would unfold with palpable caginess as both sides maintained positional discipline. Four minutes after the restart, however, Shelton did wonderfully to carve out a golden opportunity by catching RSL defender Marcelo Silva in possession, winning the ball and slipping it through to Salloi, whose side-footed effort was cast aside by Ochoa. A rebound attempt fell invitingly to Martins, whose low drive lacked the direction to beat the RSL gloveman.
Shortly after the hour mark, Salloi had another chance go begging as he robbed RSL defender Justen Glad before hammering low into the thankful arms of Ochoa. Ten minutes later, Melia produced a smart save by diving left to turn away a bending strike from RSL substitute Justin Meram.
Academy product Cam Duke entered as an 83rd-minute substitute and almost opened the scoring within 60 seconds of taking the field, running onto an excellent Remi Walter through ball and dragging a shot wide of the left post.
Controversy mired Sunday’s match with 89 minutes on the clock. Espinoza ran in behind the RSL backline and chested the ball down inside the box to line up a shot with only Ochoa to beat. Glad retreated and touched the bouncing ball with his hand, denying Espinoza his opportunity to shoot and extinguishing the danger. The flashbulb moment was checked for a possible handball infraction, but VAR Younes Marrakchi saw no offense and did not prompt head referee Ted Unkel to review the play.
RSL cashed in on their good fortune five minutes into stoppage time. Shortly after Meram saw his curler saved by Melia, the RSL winger kept the ball alive with a bicycle kick across the face of goal that Kreilach smashed into the back of the net. Kreilach’s 16th tally of the season was enough to vault RSL above the playoff line and into the 2021 postseason as the seventh-seeded team in the West.