Sporting Edges San Jose in Playoff Thriller
Goalkeeper Tim Melia saved all three penalty kicks in a decisive shootout on Sunday as top-seeded Sporting Kansas City defeated the No. 8 seed San Jose Earthquakes 3-0 on penalties following an unforgettable 3-3 draw in Round One of the Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs on Sunday afternoon at sunny Children's Mercy Park.
Roger Espinoza gave Sporting an early lead in Sunday's instant classic before the Earthquakes surged ahead through Carlos Fierro and Shea Salinas. After Ilie Sanchez pulled Sporting level in the opening moments of the second half, 18-year-old Gianluca Busio became the youngest MLS player to record a goal and an assist in a playoff match by firing the hosts into a 3-2 lead on 91 minutes. Not to be outdone, all-time MLS leading scorer Chris Wondolowski salvaged a last-gasp equalizer for San Jose to force extra time.
After a goalless extra time session, Melia delivered the heroics by saving spot kicks from San Jose's Osvaldo Alanis, Jackson Yueill and Cristian Espinoza to improve to 6-0 in penalty shootouts throughout his career. Sporting's Johnny Russell, Ilie Sanchez and Khiry Shelton all converted their attempts to vault Manager Peter Vermes' men into the next round of the playoffs, capping one of the greatest games in Children's Mercy Park history.
With a momentous Round One triumph under their belts, Sporting has advanced to the Western Conference Semifinals and will host either No. 4 seed Minnesota United FC or No. 5 seed Colorado Rapids on Dec. 1 or 2. Season Ticket Members will have access to an exclusive ticket presale for the match beginning this Monday, Nov. 23, at 10 a.m. CT. Any remaining tickets will then go on sale to the general public starting at 10 a.m. CT this Tuesday, Nov. 24.
The hosts needed just four minutes to land their first haymaker, capitalizing on a Johnny Russell corner kick in front of the sun-drenched Members Stand. The Scottish international whipped an in-swinging delivery into the six-yard area, where Espinoza glanced a perfect header across San Jose goalkeeper J.T. Marcinkowski and into the left corner of the net.
Making his 300th appearance for Sporting in all competitions, Espinoza recorded his first career playoff goal on the play and the second-earliest playoff goal in club history. Russell, meanwhile, became the fifth MLS player to hit 25 goals and 25 assists since the start of 2018 as Sporting scored for the 16th straight home game dating back to August 2019.
With momentum on their side, Sporting threatened twice more through Gerso Fernandes before the 10-minute mark. The pacey winger squared up defender Nick Lima on the left edge of the box before seeing his low drive smothered by Marcinkowski, then had another shot saved after he received a pass from 18-year-old playoff debutant Gianluca Busio, who on Sunday became the youngest Sporting player to appear in a postseason match.
After weathering a turbulent opening quarter-hour, San Jose settled into proceedings and manufactured their equalizer in the 22nd minute. Winger Cristian Espinoza corralled a looping diagonal ball from Marcos Lopez and unfurled a low, driven cross into the penalty area that deflected kindly into the path of Fierro. The Mexican's bouncing attempt pinged off the head of Sporting defender Roberto Puncec and redirected fortuitously into the net past helpless goalkeeper Tim Melia, whose MLS shutout streak ended at 291 minutes.
The Earthquakes took their first lead of the afternoon in the 34th minute. Cristian Espinoza was once again involved in the buildup, chasing a Fierro long ball down the right channel and squaring low for Salinas, who picked out the left corner with a right-footed finish near the penalty spot. Like Sporting's Espinoza, Salinas entered MLS in 2008 and on Sunday ended a 12-year wait for his first career tally in the MLS Cup Playoffs.
Two minutes into the second, half, Sporting restored parity by cashing in on yet another set piece. This time Ilie latched onto Busio's right-footed in-swinger and glanced a header that took the slightest of touches off his own back before nestling into the right corner. Busio notably stamped his name as the youngest MLS player to record a playoff assist this season as Sporting scored their 10th goal off a corner kick in 2020, three more than any other team.
Both sides showed attacking initiative as the contest ebbed and flowed in thrilling fashion. Gerso asked further questions of the San Jose backline in the 53rd minute, embarking on a lung-busting run down the right flank only to see his shot blocked by the retreating Florian Jungwirth. Four minutes later, Khiry Shelton -- making his 100th career MLS appearance -- cushioned a Russell set piece that afforded Winston Reid a shooting opportunity, but the New Zealand center back hammered high over the woodwork.
The teams exchanged half-chances midway through the half, with Melia doing well to collect Cristian Espinoza's deflected strike on 64 minutes and Russell curling a free kick over the crossbar at the 70-minute mark.
The dying embers of regulation were nothing short of stunning. In the 89th minute, Melia produced a phenomenal reflex save to push Wondolowski's close-range header onto the left post after the predatory forward connected on a Nick Lima cross.
Children's Mercy Park erupted on the other end in the 91st minute when Busio thought he had decided the match. Another galloping burst from Gerso culminated with a low cross from the left flank that reached Khiry Shelton at the edge of the six-yard area. On his 100th career MLS appearance, Shelton played a brilliant backheel pass to an open Busio, who made no mistake by slotting low past Marcinkowski and igniting rapturous celebrations across the stadium.
Undeterred, the Earthquakes snatched an unlikely equalizer on one of the final kicks of regulation. With 97 minutes on the clock, Cristian Espinoza whipped a teasing ball to the far post for Wondolowski to head past Melia and send the barnburner into extra time. Wondolowski now has 11 MLS goals against Sporting in his storied career and has struck four times in San Jose's last four matches.
Extra time was barren of clear-cut chances until the 112th minute, when a pinballing scrum ended with Sporting substitute Erik Hurtado unleashing a shot that Jungwirth lunged to critically block. Some 60 seconds later, 17-year-old San Jose substitute Cade Cowell galloped down the right sideline and prompted Melia to make a strong save at the near post. Referee Nima Saghafi blew his full-time whistle shortly thereafter, drawing a close to the six-goal encounter and setting up a penalty shootout to decide the winner.
Melia dominated the shootout as an electric Children's Mercy Park crowd fed on the goalkeeper's colossal presence between the posts. By turning away three consecutive San Jose attempts, Melia gave Sporting the first 3-0 penalty shootout result in MLS history.
Sunday's showdown marked only the third time in Sporting history that the team has rallied from a deficit at any point in the match to win in the playoffs. The club also prevailed on penalties in the 2013 MLS Cup after trailing to Real Salt Lake and earned a comeback win over FC Dallas in its inaugural playoff match in 1996.
Sporting Kansas City Manager Peter Vermes
On advancing in the postseason...
Part of the playoffs always is kind of getting through that first game. What I would say is I think this opponent was incredibly difficult for so many reasons. Their system of play is not what you see on a regular basis as a team. We tried to mimic them for two weeks in training and it's hard because our players don't play that way. It is hard getting a team to play that way so I give them a lot of credit. They played very well. They have a great mentality. Their work ethic was tremendous. At the end, I've never seen that done by a goalkeeper ever before. Survive, move on, get ready for the next game. That is for sure the mantra of playoffs.
On the additional stoppage time at the end of the second half...
I was surprised that it was as long as it was. This happened to us in the game against Chicago, a very similar situation. At the end, I can't do anything about it. It's happened to us multiple times already just this season along with a lot of other things, but our staff and our players and everybody has decided that we're just going to put our focus on us and try to do whatever we can to win the games and realize we're not going to get any help along the way.
On the preparation it takes for Tim Melia's performance in the shootout...
He's just really good at it. I've never seen that in my life. I've never seen a goalkeeper make the first three saves in penalty kicks. I've never witnessed it. It says a lot about Tim. He does this regularly. It's something special that he has. It really is. He's a different level. I don't get surprised a lot, but I was surprised tonight.
On the play of Gianluca Busio...
When he came into the locker room after the game, I said to him, 'I can't say enough about your effort tonight.' Everybody always looks at the goals and the assists, but the work that he put into the game and understanding what I asked him to do. He did it for almost 120 minutes. The kid is something special. I'm happy for him because he works really hard and he deserves to make the kind of contribution he did tonight. He's an excellent player and I really appreciate the way he goes about his business every day. I really do.
On the emotions at the end of regulation...
Them scoring the goal, kick off, whistle blows. The game is done and now we've got to go into overtime. I was concerned at that moment that they had the momentum from an emotional perspective. I could tell that our guys were down. They were upset. I had to do everything I could to kind of change that going into the first overtime. They got on with it really quickly. I thought that we managed the two overtimes really well. Some of it has to do with the fact that we have some real leaders on the team and also some of it has to do with the fact that I think a lot of our young guys that were out on the field realize that this is their opportunity. They're not going to think that they have a lot of these in the future. They're dealing with the present. I commend them for that.
Sporting Kansas City forward Gianluca Busio
On his first experience in the postseason and his stoppage time goal...
It was a pretty special experience from the start. My first playoff game, I was excited for it but a little nervous. When the game got going, I was treating it as another game and scoring and getting an assist is big for me because I want to impact the game. Every game I want to do that. To get one like that in those circumstances was pretty special and I'm going to remember this moment, but I just want to move forward and win the next couple games.
On the team's ability to bounce back...
It's easy for teams to put their heads down after you give up a late goal after you just scored but I think this team is built for the playoffs. We have a good strong mindset, and everybody knew that we gave up a goal and it's pretty bad, but we have 30 more minutes and penalty kicks eventually to win this game. That's what happened and everybody stepped up confidently, put them in and we have the best goalie in the league so that made it pretty easy for us.
On Tim Melia's impact...
It's unreal. I've watched a lot of soccer and even played a lot of FIFA and I've never seen anything like that. To make three saves in a row is just unreal. The guy's amazing at them and I can't even score on him in practice, so it makes it a lot easier on the takers when you have a goalkeeper like Tim to save the penalties.
On his progress over the course of the 2020 season...
I feel like this year has been difficult for everyone and it was hard for all of us. With the MLS is Back Tournament, that was a tough experience for everybody to get back in fitness. For me, playing the six and pretty much everywhere this year has developed me more as a player and a person just learning how to improve and how to help the team in any way. I feel like I've learned a lot this year and matured a lot this year and it's starting to show with more goals and assists and hopefully I can continue to do that. Peter [Vermes] has been a great mentor and coach to me and he's been excellent in trusting me. He believes in me so that gives a player a ton of confidence. He makes it a lot easier for me to just focus on the game.
Sporting Kansas City goalkeeper Tim Melia
On the emotions toward end of match...
It was difficult. At that point, you think the game is in the bag and then all of a sudden we're not as clean as we should be defensively and now we're in two 15-minute overtimes. Saying that, I think the effort from the team in the sense that we tied, we were down, we tied, and just the emotions of getting scored on in these big games and then coming together in overtime and being very compact defensively, not giving anything away, doing what we need to to get through it is something that we can really build off of.
On the late drama surrounding himself and Chris Wondolowski, two of the most unlikely success stories in league history...
I think Wondo [Chris Wondolowski] shatters me by a landslide. What he's done in this league is incredible and how he is as a person. He's humble. He's the hardest working guy even now at 37. I just told him after the game that I hope he keeps going. Scoring that big time goal in a game, that's not the year to end on. He has the quality to keep going. He has the engine to keep going and that's a character you want in your locker room, so I hope he continues.
On his approach to penalty shootouts...
No secrets to speak of. It's a collective effort from everyone with a million different variables going into it and then just trying to execute it in the moment.
Preparation for penalty kicks and impressing Peter Vermes...
Any time you can impress Peter [Vermes], that's a good thing because it doesn't happen very often. It should be less about me and more about the fact that our guys stepped up in a big-time moment and hit three very good penalties. I understand I made the saves and they're going to talk about that, but the quality of our shooters is special. As a goalkeeper, you just tell yourself when you have the talent that you do, you just have to make one save and the guys are going to do the job for you and all three of them made it.
On how good he's been in penalty situations...
I just want to advance. If I save all of them or if I save zero and we advance, the focal point is we want to advance and we just want to do well for our club and for ourselves and for our families. The individual effort isn't as important to me as the collective effort and accomplishing goals we set out at the beginning of the year.
On the mental aspect of the position...
I don't know how much of a mental game it is. I don't think people -- especially field players -- spend a whole lot of time studying goalkeepers. The percentage of penalty saves is so small that if they hit a really good penalty more than likely it's not going to be saved. So, I don't think that shooters think about the goalkeeper, but I could be wrong.
On stopping three straight shots in a penalty shootout...
I don't remember if it was the first three, but I was in an Open Cup game with Charleston [Battery] against the Chicago Fire and it might have been three or four. I didn't save all three. I think one person hit the crossbar, but either three or four has happened (in my career) before.
Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs
Western Conference Round One
Children's Mercy Park | Kansas City, Kansas
Weather: 54 degrees and sunny
Score 1 2 ET F PK
Sporting Kansas City 1 2 0 3 3
San Jose Earthquakes 2 1 0 3 0
Sporting Kansas City: Tim Melia; Jaylin Lindsey, Roberto Puncec, Winston Reid, Amadou Dia; Ilie Sanchez, Roger Espinoza (Felipe Hernandez 90+3'), Gianluca Busio (Gadi Kinda 97'); Johnny Russell (C), Khiry Shelton, Gerso Fernandes (Erik Hurtado 90+3')
Subs Not Used: John Pulskamp, Andreu Fontas, Luis Martins, Graham Smith, Cam Duke, Daniel Salloi
San Jose Earthquakes: J.T. Marcinkowski; Nick Lima, Florian Jungwirth, Oswaldo Alanis, Marcos Lopez (Tommy Thompson 102'); Cristian Espinoza, Judson (Eric Calvillo 115'), Jackson Yueill, Shea Salinas (Cade Cowell 87'); Carlos Fierro (Andres Rios 87'), Chris Wondolowski (C)
Subs Not Used: Daniel Vega, Tanner Beason, Paul Marie, Luis Felipe, Siad Haji
SKC -- Roger Espinoza 1 (Johnny Russell1) 4'
SJ -- Carlos Fierro 1 (unassisted) 22'
SJ -- Shea Salinas 1 (Cristian Espinoza 1, Carlos Fierro 1) 34'
SKC -- Ilie Sanchez 1 (Gianluca Busio 1) 47'
SKC -- Gianluca Busio 1 (Khiry Shelton 1, Gerso Fernandes 1) 90+1'
SJ -- Chris Wondolowski 1 (Cristian Espinoza 2, Andres Rios 1) 90+7
Penalty Kick Summary:
SKC -- Johnny Russell (goal)
SJ -- Oswaldo Alanis (saved)
SKC -- Ilie Sanchez (goal)
SJ -- Jackson Yueill (saved)
SKC -- Khiry Shelton (goal)
SJ -- Cristian Espinoza (saved)
SJ -- Nick Lima (yellow card; unsporting behavior) 28'
SKC -- Winston Reid (yellow card; unsporting behavior) 39'
SJ -- Marcos Lopez (yellow card; unsporting behavior) 56'
SKC -- Amadou Dia (yellow card; unsporting behavior) 78'
SKC -- Roger Espinoza (yellow card; unsporting behavior) 79'
SJ -- Cristian Espinoza (yellow card; dissent) 85'
SKC -- Johnny Russell (yellow card; unsporting behavior) 86'
Stat SKC SJ
Shots 14 17
Shots on Goal 8 8
Saves 5 5
Fouls 19 17
Offsides 0 0
Corner Kicks 5 6
Referee: Nima Saghafi
Assistant Referee: Andrew Bigelow
Assistant Referee: Jeremy Kieso
Fourth Official: Ramy Touchan
VAR: Jon Freemon
AVAR: Adam Garner
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Major League Soccer Stories from November 22, 2020
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