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 Sporting Kansas City

Sporting Rolls into Open Cup Quarterfinals

May 21, 2024 - Major League Soccer (MLS)
Sporting Kansas City News Release

Sporting Kansas City surged into the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals behind a dominant 4-0 victory over FC Tulsa in the tournament's Round of 16 on Tuesday at Children's Mercy Park.

Felipe Hernandez bagged a brace to go with goals on both sides of halftime from Stephen Afrifa and Marinos Tzionis, propelling the four-time Open Cup champions in to the final eight of the 2024 competition. Sporting will learn its quarterfinal opponent Wednesday at 9 p.m. CT during a livestream draw on the U.S. Soccer YouTube channel.

A reshuffled Sporting lineup featured seven changes from Saturday's 3-2 road loss at Austin FC, including the return of center back Dany Rosero after the Colombian had missed four straight matches due to injury and the introduction of Afrifa, who earned his first start since July 2023. It was Sporting's seventh different starting XI in as many matches across all competitions and the first time the front three of Afrifa, Tzionis and Willy Agada started together.

Manager Peter Vermes' side was rampant from start to finish, holding 74% of possession and a 34-3 advantage in shot attempts, and put their USL Championship counterparts under significant pressure from the opening whistle. Tulsa goalkeeper Michael Creek was the busiest man of the night, producing 10 saves, and did well to dive at full extension to cast aside Erik Thommy's venomous blast in the 10 minute. Thommy threatened again shortly thereafter, receiving an incisive pass from fellow German Tim Leibold before seeing his deflected strike palmed away by Creek.

Center back Andreu Fontas almost etched his name onto the scoresheet in the 20th minute, blazing high after Jake Davis had a long-range effort blocked through traffic. Creek then made a stunning kick save to thwart Agada on the doorstep before Afrifa's volley on the rebound pinged the top of the crossbar. Less than a minute later, Afrifa was again denied by the woodwork as his sweetly struck curler from 25-yards rattled the post.

Tulsa's forays into the attack were few and far between, but the visitors almost took an unlikely lead in the 32nd minute when Phillip Goodrum strode down the right side and whipped in a cross for Camilo Ponce to nod goalward. Sporting goalkeeper John Pulskamp did brilliantly to drop low and get his mitts on the header and keep the game goalless.

At the opposite end, Sporting kept knocking on the door and were eventually rewarded in the 37th minute. After Rosero's powerful header off a corner kick was palmed over by Creek, Hernandez uncorked a free kick left of the penalty area that took a wicked deflection into the back of the net to give Sporting a 1-0 advantage.

Agada could have doubled Sporting's cushion in the 43rd minute, but his side volley destined for the left corner smacked off the side of Afrifa and Tulsa was spared its blushes. Agada was again unlucky in first-half stoppage time, latching onto a Thommy cross only for Creek to make another impressive save.

Afrifa opened his Sporting KC scoring account on the cusp of halftime. After Agada's leaping header kissed the left post, the 23-year-old Canadian was on hand to smash the rebound into the roof of the net to push the margin to 2-0 and record his second professional goal, having scored for Sporting KC II in July 2023.

Tulsa's wretched evening went from bad to worst 30 seconds after the restart when defender Patrick Seagrist was sent off for his second yellow card offense. Sporting's superiority only became more pronounced from there, with Afrifa and Agada connecting in the 53rd minute before the latter's booming shot was blocked behind for a corner kick.

Hernandez pocketed his second goal of the night and Sporting's third with 63 minutes on the clock. Embarking on a lung-busting run down the right channel, the homegrown midfielder received a wide pass from Agada, squared up his defender and finished low across Creek and into the far left corner of the net. Hernandez has now scored four of his eight career goals for Sporting in the Open Cup, having struck twice in a 6-0 quarterfinal win over Union Omaha on June 22, 2022.

Tzionis extended Sporting's lead to 4-0 two minutes later, collecting a clever ball from Afrifa and firing high past Creek from the right side of the box. Like Hernandez, Tzionis has enjoyed a prolific Open Cup tenure with Sporting, scoring four of his five career goals for the club in the tournament. With four goals apiece in the competition, Tzionis and Hernandez are tied for seventh on Sporting's all-time Open Cup scoring chart.

Pulskamp was forced into a save in the 73rd minute, smothering a shot from Tulsa substitute Stefan Stojanovic, before Sporting brought on a slew of reinforcements to close out the match-namely Alan Pulido, Johnny Russell and Daniel Salloi. Pulido had a great chance to notch Sporting's fifth goal in the 88th minute, but his breakaway shot hit the crossbar. Creek's outstanding display carried into the final moments, as he did superbly to thwart Agada and Salloi in quick succession before referee Sergii Demianchuk whistled for full time.

Sporting's MLS regular season campaign will resume Saturday with a trip to face the Portland Timbers at 9:30 p.m. CT. The Western Conference clash will be shown live on MLS Season Pass via Apple TV with local radio coverage on Sports Radio 810 WHB and La Grande 1340 AM.


Sporting Kansas City Manager Peter Vermes

Thoughts on the match...

From start to finish, we had good concentration. The intensity, the aggressiveness, the front footedness to go and take the game to them was there. I think that ruled the day. They had the one chance in the first half and then I think they had one chance in the second half if you will, maybe two. But at that point we were big time in control of the game, which was good. Our possession was much, much better. When I talk about that, I don't mean that from a percentage perspective. I'm talking about the way that we move the ball and the correct decisions and the circulation. It was good. In the first half, I think we probably should have scored three or four goals.

On Stephen Afrifa's performance...

This was probably his best performance since preseason. For some reason he fell out of form for a while there and we've been talking a lot about him getting back into his game because I think he was probably our best player in preseason. So this was a good game for him in a lot of different ways. It's always good when an attacking player gets a goal because it's a little bit of a confidence builder. It was good to get him on and just get him into some rhythm.

On Felipe Hernandez...

This is his best performance. I'm just being very honest. In the game against Omaha, he didn't play well. I think he was very undisciplined in the game and tonight he was disciplined. He played to his strengths and he was a different player. I actually just told him that five minutes ago. It's an important aspect. If you want to be successful, you have got to know what your strengths are and you have got to know how to play to those and you have got to hide your weaknesses. Tonight he did that and he was an important player on the field. The fact that he also played the 90 minutes is really important too because it gives other guys a rest and a chance to come off the field, which was good because I was able to use (Erik) Thommy and Memo (Rodriguez) together. Getting (Nemanja) Radoja off the field was good because he's put in a lot of mileage. He works very, very hard in games. Giving those guys that break after playing Saturday and now going into this weekend again and traveling again, it was good to be able to do that. It's great that he's able to have a good performance.

On Tim Leibold...

It's no different than when (Graham) Zusi was here where Zusi used to come in and we used to play three out of the back. We just felt that if we pull him inside, it would get (Stephen) Afrifa a lot more isolated 1v1, which it did. I think it's an important aspect sometimes when you want to come out of the back with three to not always use your defensive midfielder because then you lose a guy in the middle of the park and I don't like that. So the fact that he was able to do that the way he did it tonight was really good because it gives us another way of playing which we need.

On the red card...

I was going to bring on guys probably a little bit earlier, but then I didn't have to at that moment. I give the referee a lot of credit and why I give it to him is because a lot of referees blow off that foul and give the guy a pass. He realized that it was reckless and it was after the play and he didn't hold back. I think that's the way the game is supposed to be managed from the referee's perspective. A foul is a foul is a foul and I appreciate the way that he refereed. I thought he had really good control of the game, so that was good.

On managing the match...

It was good. Once we went to a man up, for a few minutes there we were a little bit out of sorts. Not overly out of sorts, but it's just all of a sudden we're thinking, 'Alright, how do we want to do this? What do we want to do?' And the one thing that I wanted was, when the ball turned over, I wanted immediate pressure on the ball. So I got that message out and then we started to really do that and I think we turned them over pretty quickly, which was good. And then I think our ball circulation got much better in that we shared the ball a lot better on the field than I even think in the first half.

On gaining confidence from the win...

They're two separate competitions that we're in. We need results in league play, for sure. What I like is that we had a very good effort in Austin in regards to our approach to the game and the way that we fought. All those things were very good. In this game, we had a lot of changes. Those guys adopted and adapted to that as well. They implemented all those ideas and we have got to continue to keep building off that. A win is a win is a win and, in the end, this is a very important tournament to us. We always have taken this very seriously. We're on a journey and now we're in the quarterfinals, which is an important step for us. We have got to keep rolling in the other areas as well and just keep getting better.

Sporting KC midfielder Felipe Hernandez

On the game-winning goal...

We'll take it. I just try to put the ball in a good area. Things like that happen when you put it on frame and when you put a dangerous ball in. Luckily it hit off the defender.

On creating chances...

I know that we've got big guys - we've got (Andreu) Fontas, we've got (Dany) Rosero -- that are going to win those balls if I put the balls in. Willy (Agada) had a few that he put his head on. If I put a good ball in then they're going to do their thing. They're going to get on the end of it. When the ball is in the box like that, anything can happen. You saw the ball dropped right to (Stephen) Afrifa. Put a good ball in, things happen.

On his second goal...

We kind of got on a breakaway and I just saw a lot of space and they'd shifted over. I just knew someone had to be in that space so I made a 60 yard run hoping Willy (Agada) would play me. He picked his head up and found me. When I got isolated with a guy, I knew I was going to do a stepover and push it out wide to create space. Luckily he bit and far post is what I was always thinking. Peter has always told me, 'Hit it far post hard and the keeper is never going to get it.' He didn't even move so perfect.

On his performance in Omaha versus tonight...

I don't think there was really a difference in mindset or the approach to the game. It's always been the same for me, but I just feel like, for me, it just wasn't my day. I came to play like I do every day but sometimes things don't work out. I kind of had to lock in today and concentrate. Luckily the goal came and, most importantly, we advanced.

On using the win for momentum...

Any game we play is important. Open Cup is big. It's very historic here in the U.S. so games like these are important for the club, especially for us. We've been struggling a bit, but the morale of the guys is good, clearly, and we're going to keep pushing.

On his service from set piece...

In-swingers and deep balls and set pieces like that, I feel really confident hitting those balls and playing a good ball in. Zoran (Savic) and Peter (Vermes), they have confidence in me hitting that ball.

On seeing out the game...

You've seen it throughout the season, a lack of concentration from all of us and it's hurt us in the end. So we knew coming out in the second half, we had to get that next goal in and get another one in to just kill any momentum that they had. Because in tournaments like these with teams coming up, they have got nothing to lose. They're going to bust their butts off. And that's exactly what they did. All respect to them, they came and did what they had to do.

Sporting Kansas City forward Stephen Afrifa

On the feeling of scoring his first SKC goal...

Amazing. I just hope to keep it going. This is just a start for me and I have just got to build on this individually and as a team.

On seeing his shot hit the back of the net...

Honestly, it was a little frustrating just watching the ball hit the bar twice and then blocking Willy (Agada's) shot. I'm just glad that we finally got it working and I'm just happy for the goal.

Thoughts on his performance...

Good. I started off slow but I just worked it out and managed to get to where I'm comfortable. Obviously, a skillset of mine is 1v1 and being able to do that helped me out a lot so just listening to Peter (Vermes) and understanding to be patient. It all worked out.

On staying sharp with SKC II...

Obviously this level is a little bit faster than with the second team, but same principles and just doing what I do best by trying to just make things happen.

On his mentality...

Obviously, my job here is to try to get better every day and try to get my chances with the team and just get my starts in. I learned from Jake (Davis) last year. He took advantage of his Open Cup run and managed to get himself in the team. I just look at that and try to take a little bit of motivation from there. I'm just trying to build on it.

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