It’s been coming for a while now, but Sporting Kansas City officially clinched a Major League Soccer playoff berth Saturday afternoon, beating the Seattle Sounders 2-1 at Lumen Field.
The victory was a huge step in the right direction for Sporting KC (16-7-7). Sporting is chasing the Sounders (17-7-7) for the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference and now sits just three points back with a game in hand and four remaining in the regular season.
“I think it was a really good, important three points at an important time of the year,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said. “It shows a lot of moxie on the quality of our guys because you can have quality, you can have all these different things, but at the end of the day if you don’t show up at the times that you need to, you don’t achieve anything.”
The visitors took the lead in the fourth minute courtesy of Remi Walter’s first goal in a Sporting jersey. The Sounders equalized in the 58th on a Nicolas Benezet header, but Johnny Russell scored the decider in the 79th — his seventh goal in as many matches.
Sporting KC’s facility has been buzzing in recent weeks as players have talked about how much they enjoy this time of the year. Vermes and winger Daniel Salloi said as much last week, as have veterans Graham Zusi and Tim Melia.
Perhaps accordingly, Saturday afternoon’s meeting between the top two teams in the Western Conference felt a bit like a playoff game.
There were 35 total fouls and eight yellow cards were shown and there arguably should’ve been a red card or two mixed in, as well. At one point Melia, the Sporting KC goalkeeper, apparently grew weary of getting backed into by Seattle’s Cristian Roldan ... so he dropped Roldan into the net with a suplex.
— B/R Football (@brfootball) October 23, 2021
To call the atmosphere chippy would be an understatement.
“There were a lot of fouls called so we had to — whether you think they’re a foul or not, it doesn’t really matter — we had to defend them, and we defended really well in a lot of situations,” Vermes said.
Indeed, Sporting managed to get the job done — and did so without a few key contributors. Star forward Alan Pulido was out following knee surgery, and MVP candidate Salloi was an unexpected absence with an ankle injury.
Vermes said after the game that Salloi turned his ankle in last week’s loss to the Vancouver Whitecaps and is day-to-day.
Sporting hardly missed a step in the first half, attacking constantly down Russell’s right side of the field. The tactic paid off when Russell sent a low cross to Walter and the latter smashed home the first goal of the afternoon from about 20 yards.
“I’m very happy to get my first goal,” Walter said. “I think today was very important for the team, for the group and for me.”
Down 1-0, Seattle came out firing in the second half and scored an equalizer within 15 minutes. Seattle outshot KC 12-1 in the second half, but that one shot was all Sporting needed to pocket Saturday’s three points.
In the span of three passes, the ball traveled from Melia to Ilie Sanchez and then Roger Espinoza, who played a perfect through-ball to Russell in the Seattle box. Russell placed a left-footer into the bottom-left corner.
— Sporting Kansas City (@SportingKC) October 23, 2021
The Scottish captain cupped his ears toward the Seattle fans as he wheeled away in celebration. The small section of Sporting KC road fans in attendance were louder at that point than the 32,000 home fans in attendance.
“The celebration’s a bit of fun,” Russell said. “I was getting stick (trash-talked) all game. I usually do here.
“So it was just a little bit of banter back. Some people can’t take it, but that’s not my problem.”
Sporting plays host to the L.A. Galaxy at Children’s Mercy Park on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. Central Time. If the Sounders lose to LAFC Tuesday night, a Sporting win Wednesday could mean first place in the West based on goal differential: either Seattle would have to lose by more than one goal, or KC would have to win by more than one goal.