Courtesy of Sporting Kansas City
Sporting Kansas City suffered a last-gasp 2-1 loss to rivals Real Salt Lake on Sunday afternoon in the Western Conference Semifinals of the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs at Children’s Mercy Park.
Captain Johnny Russell fired Sporting ahead from the penalty spot in the first half, but RSL rallied late as substitutes Anderson Julio and Bobby Wood struck in the 72nd and 91st minutes to end Sporting’s season in heartbreaking fashion.
Mexican striker and MLS playoff debutant Alan Pulido accounted for the lone change to Sporting’s lineup from a 3-1 first-round win over Vancouver Whitecaps FC last weekend. The club-record signing replaced Khiry Shelton to spearhead a three-pronged attack that also featured Russell and MLS MVP finalist Daniel Salloi. On the opposite side of the pitch, right back Graham Zusi notably became the fourth player in team history to hit 20 appearances in the MLS postseason.
A tense opening saw neither side seriously threaten through the first quarter of the match, although Pulido did force an early save from RSL goalkeeper David Ochoa and Pablo Ruiz called Sporting goalkeeper Tim Melia into action shortly thereafter as both players tried their luck from long range.
The game’s dynamic changed midway through the first half. All-action midfielder Gadi Kinda skipped into the box and was chopped to the turf by RSL right back Aaron Herrera, prompting veteran referee Kevin Stott to point to the spot.
Russell buried the ensuing penalty by smashing hard into the right corner for his first playoff goal and his 16th tally of the season, tying Salloi for the team lead. The strike snapped RSL’s 278-minute shutout streak over the last four matches as Russell improved to a perfect 5-for-5 on penalties in his MLS career. Sporting’s four postseason goals this year have come from four different scorers, none of whom had previously scored in the MLS Cup Playoffs.
Midfielder Remi Walter could have doubled Sporting’s advantage on the stroke of halftime and become the club’s fifth player to open his playoff scoring account in 2021, but his left-footed belter near the top of the box fizzed wide of the target.
Sporting jumped on RSL early in the second period and went agonizingly close to landing another punch in the 50th minute. Kinda whipped a tantalizing free kick into the mixer from the left channel, caressing off the head of Ruiz and pinging the goalpost before skipping out of play for a corner kick.
RSL improved over the next quarter-hour, however, and almost equalized in the 66th minute if not for spectacular goalkeeping from Melia. Substitute Justin Meram weaved his way down the left side of the box and pulled a ball back for Damir Kreilach, who drilled a first-time shot goalward. Melia produced an excellent reflex stop and then smothered possession in the goalmouth, preventing Julio from poking home the rebound.
Julio would draw RSL level six minutes later, steering a bouncing header into the back of the net off a left-wing Andrew Brody cross. That play gave the visitors they would need to bag a dramatic game-winner, with Wood slotting low into the corner off a driven Meram cross in the first minute of second-half stoppage time.
Sporting will now enter a shortened offseason prior to kicking off the 2022 MLS ledger on Feb. 27 with a visit to Atlanta United FC and a home opener against Houston Dynamo FC on March 5. Season tickets for Sporting’s 2022 campaign are available and include exclusive Season Ticket Member benefits. Fans interested in securing season tickets can visit SportingKC.com or call 888-4KC-GOAL to learn more and place a deposit in one of 10 different seating sections inside Children’s Mercy Park.