KANSAS CITY, Kan. — It took a Daniel Salloi brace, some Video-Assistant-Referee drama and a man-down lineup — but Sporting Kansas City took down Los Angeles FC 2-1 Sunday to win Major League Soccer’s Western Conference.
“It says that we can do it in a lot of different ways,” Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes said. “Going down a man like we did, being able to not only defend at that point, but to be able to get a game-winner, says a lot about the group. … This game tonight was, as I said to the guys, not a league match. It was a final. And I think we played it like a final.”
Early on, it looked as if Sporting would cruise to a top finish in the West: It could have finished with a tie and still landed the No. 1 seed. The first half was punctuated by a 5-1 shots-on-target advantage over LAFC.
And Roger Espinoza, fresh off a birthday this week, added to his already-standout season to give Sporting the early lead. In the 37th minute, Graham Zusi found space on the near side and slid a ball to Espinoza in the middle. Espinoza – ordinarily the midfielder searching for someone else’s opportunity – launched a screamer from distance into the top corner of the net. That score gave Sporting an early 1-0 lead in a match where it controlled its own destiny in the Western Conference.
But in a season punctuated by several instances of VAR-related drama – and manager Peter Vermes’s outspokenness about it – Sunday fell into the same pattern.
In the 59th minute, it seemed as if Sporting had narrowly avoided a Los Angeles equalizer. On an LAFC corner kick, with Kansas City up 1-0, the ball made contact with Ike Opara’s head and curled towards the post. But instead of filtering inside the goal, the ball bounced off Sporting defender Seth Sinovic, standing flush with the post.
But officials reviewed the video and called a handball, awarding LAFC with a penalty kick and Sinvoic a red-card ejection. Carlos Vela buried the subsequent PK and pulled Los Angeles even. Sporting played on, one man down.
“I know where it hit me – it hit me in the armpit,” Sinovic said. “I think it looked bad because I was holding onto the post the whole time. The referee said it was 100 percent a handball. He’s got final say.”
But 13 minutes later, Salloi – who hadn’t capitalized on a one-on-one opportunity earlier in the half – clinched Kansas City’s No. 1 seed. It was Khiry Shelton, streaking down the right flank, who slipped in the assist, and Salloi sent it in behind LAFC goalkeeper Tyler Miller. Children’s Mercy Park – already at a tipping point from the earlier VAR controversy – exploded.
“I played a ball out to Khiry, and then he saw me running on top of the box,” Salloi said. “He played me a perfect ball. … Thank you, Khiry – I love him. That was amazing. He’s a great player and we really know how to play with each other.”
The 2-1 victory sets Kansas City up with home-field advantage for the extent of the playoffs on the Western Conference side.
“This was our objective to get to this place,” Vermes said, “but we have a lot of work to do still.”