Khiry Shelton, Nicolas Isimat-Mirin and Graham Zusi opened their MLS postseason scoring accounts on Saturday as No. 3 seed Sporting Kansas City claimed a comprehensive 3-1 win over No. 6 seed Vancouver Whitecaps FC in Round One of the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs at Children’s Mercy Park.
The result sends Sporting Kansas City to the Western Conference Semifinals, where they will meet either No. 2 seed Seattle Sounders FC or No. 7 seed Real Salt Lake on Sunday, Nov. 28, at 2 p.m. CT on ABC and ESPN Deportes. Tickets for the conference semifinal clash are available at SeatGeek.com, with Sporting set to host if Real Salt Lake beats Seattle on Tuesday night. If the Sounders prevail, Sporting will visit Seattle next Sunday and all ticket buyers will be automatically refunded for their full purchase price.
In the inaugural playoff meeting between Sporting and Vancouver, MLS MVP finalist Daniel Salloi added two assists and goalkeeper Tim Melia collected his 100th win for the club in all competitions. Sporting improved to a perfect 18-0-0 when scoring at least twice this year and more importantly punched a ticket to the conference semifinal stage of the playoffs for the third time in four seasons.
The hosts took early attacking initiative, carving out their first chance within six minutes as Shelton found a pocket of space near the left edge of the box and fed Salloi, who swiveled centrally and forced a save from Vancouver keeper Maxime Crepeau. Only a minute later, Gadi Kinda—making his 50th competitive appearance for Sporting—received a square pass from captain Johnny Russell, took a touch to his left and blazed a 20-yard shot inches wide of the right post.
Shelton provided Sporting’s breakthrough goal with the finishing touch on a spellbinding move from defense to attack. In the 17th minute, Zusi floated a lovely diagonal ball over the top for Salloi to chase. The 25-year-old winger settled into possession and returned a perfect cross-field pass to the on-running Zusi, who had advanced into Vancouver’s penalty area. The 35-year-old right back volleyed a first-time cutback from the right side to Shelton, who deftly prodded low into the left corner to give his side a 1-0 advantage. The 28-year-old forward tallied his first career postseason goal on the play, while Zusi notched his club-record seventh playoff assist.
Purring with momentum, Sporting nearly doubled their lead in the 24th minute. Kinda did brilliantly to win a midfield duel and spin away with possession before setting Salloi free down the left flank. The MLS MVP finalist cut swiftly past Vancouver defender Florian Jungwirth before seeing his low drive blocked through traffic.
Not long later, Russell was on the end of two good looks as Sporting continued to dictate proceedings. The Scottish forward took a pass from Remi Walter and dragged an attempt wide on the right edge of the box before his long-range belter was smothered by Crepeau.
Vancouver leveled terms against the run of play, thanks in part to the intervention of VAR Drew Fischer. After a searching Whitecaps free kick struck the arm of Sporting defender Luis Martins inside the penalty area, head official Alan Kelly was prompted to take a second look on replay. He awarded a penalty to the visitors and Dajome converted the ensuing spot kick by slotting low into the corner on his playoff debut.
Parity would be short-lived, however, as Isimat-Mirin marked his maiden MLS playoff appearance with a go-ahead goal on the final consequential kick of the first half. Russell’s in-swinging corner kick was cleared only as far as Shelton, whose cushioned header glanced across the face of goal and was poked home on the doorstep by the French center back, whose first Sporting goal ignited joyous celebrations across the stadium.
Zusi blew the proverbial roof off Children’s Mercy Park in the 58th minute, scoring one of the finest goals in club postseason history. Salloi was isolated on the left channel and dribbled centrally before laying the ball off to the 13-year MLS veteran, who took a settling touch before unleashing a 30-yard laser beam into the top left corner for his first career playoff strike and one of the greatest Sporting goals in recent memory. Salloi tabbed his second assist of the night on the play—becoming the third player in team history to notch two assists in a playoff match—and ranks third in MLS this season with 26 combined goals (16) and assists (10).
Sporting survived a fleeting scare in the 69th minute. Vancouver broke forward and Bruno Gaspar clipped a teasing cross into the mixer for Brian White, who snapped a header goalward. Melia sprung to his right to produce a fantastic save on the goal line and preserve his team’s two-goal cushion.
Vancouver committed numbers forward in the dying embers and were almost caught out in the 85th minute. Shelton galloped free on the breakaway and could have doubled his goal tally for the day, but his shot under duress skipped wide of the mark.
The Whitecaps thought they had grabbed a goal back on 86 minutes when Bruno Gaspar crossed low for Lucas Cavallini to fire into the back of the net at close range, but the offside flag was raised and Gaspar was issued a yellow card for punting the ball into the stands in frustrated reaction to the correct call.