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Concacaf Champions League: Sporting KC’s 3 goals in 12 minutes seals semifinal berth

Mar 14, 2019; Kansas City, KS, USA; Sporting Kansas City forward Krisztian Nemeth (9) celebrates after scoring a goal with teammates midfielder Felipe Gutierrez (21) and forward Johnny Russell (7) during the second half against Independiente at Children's Mercy Park. (Peter G. Aiken/USA TODAY Sports)

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Sporting Kansas City saw chance after chance after chance fail, with potential goals thwarted by the post and acrobatic saves. But a three-goal stampede after the 74th minute advanced SKC into the semifinals of the Concacaf Champions League, with a 3-0 win Thursday and a 4-2 aggregate score against Panama’s Club Atlético Independiente de la Chorrera.

“I just felt it was inevitable,” SKC manager Peter Vermes said. “We were too good not to win the game and go through, simply put.”

SKC is the last remaining Major League Soccer team in the tournament and will face CF Monterrey, which beat Atlanta United to advance, in the next round.

A 74th-minute Krisztian Nemeth goal gave Sporting Kansas City the margin it needed. Roger Espinoza’s shot seven minutes later more or less sealed the deal. And Nemeth’s brace in the 86th minute made the trip worth it for the announced 13,212 at Children’s Mercy Park in pouring rain and strong winds.

Needing only a tie to advance, Independiente bunkered early with its 2-1 aggregate lead. And at first it worked: CAI thwarted Sporting Kansas City’s offense over and over again, especially in the second half.

Gerso Fernandes hit the post. So did Felipe Gutierrez. Then there was another Gutierrez shot that needed CAI goalkeeper Jose Guerra to tip it over the crossbar.

And CAI continued to slow the game down at every chance.

“From the opening whistle, it was obvious,” Vermes said. “I mean, they were already tired is the way they were playing it off. The ball would go out of bounds and they were walking 15 or 20 yards to go pick up a ball.”

But finally (after putting 13 shots on target in the first half), SKC found the net. Defender Botond Baráth was on the receiving end of a corner kick and headed it to Nemeth, who booted it past CAI keeper Guerra.

Immediately after, Ilie Sanchez had words for Guerra, who had been carded earlier for time-wasting. A quick scrum near the goal as the rest of the SKC players celebrated their lead was the culmination of a night of frustration and plenty of chatter on both sides.

“It was more so the antics and time-wasting throughout the game,” said Johnny Russell, who appeared to say something to Guerra before heading off to celebrate with the rest of SKC. “It’s always nice to see that backfire on people when they do it.”

The backfire was quick and explosive after Nemeth opened the floodgates. In the 81st minute, Fernandes sent a cross in, Russell chipped it back into Espinoza, and Espinoza easily converted. That 2-0 lead would have likely been enough for SKC to advance, with time running out. But Nemeth piled on with an 86th-minute score to set the final score.

It was a recovery from an inauspicious start for Sporting Kansas City, which was forced into an unwanted 21st-minute substitution. Starting forward Daniel Salloi went down in a heap after a tangle near the box and immediately grabbed his ankle. Trainers initially brought out the stretcher for him, but he attempted to run it off on the sideline. He eventually needed the help of a trainer to walk off the field, and Gerso Fernandes subbed in.

Things didn’t necessarily improve for Kansas City – both the club and the geographical area. Intermittent sheets of rain blew sideways in the near-20-mph winds, remnants of the “bomb cyclone” weather system moving through the Midwest. And on the field, SKC dominated possession but couldn’t convert into goals. The closest SKC came in the first half was in stoppage time off a free kick from Graham Zusi. His curled shot required another acrobatic Guerra save.

Despite taking 26 shots (18 on target) to get there, the floodgates did eventually open for Kansas City. And that 3-0 scoreline was even sweeter for SKC, given CAI’s bunkering, slow-moving philosophy.

“It bothers me so much about the game,” Vermes said. “I don’t think the game should be played that way, but we’re going to face that and we have to be able to be mature enough to deal with it. We did a great job of managing that. And what was great was how the tables turned and they wanted the game to bee hurried up, and our guys were very intelligent in the way they managed the game in that moment. It’s nice to be able to turn the tables on someone that wants to play that way and make them feel it.”

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