Sporting Seals Playoff Berth in Win at FC Cincinnati
Second-half substitute Roger Espinoza scored a pivotal goal on Wednesday night as Sporting Kansas City (11-6-3, 36 points) clinched a berth in the 2020 Audi MLS Cup Playoffs following a 1-0 road victory over FC Cincinnati (4-13-4, 16 points) at Nippert Stadium.
The result guarantees Sporting Kansas City a top-eight finish in the Western Conference and vaults the club back into first place with two scheduled matches remaining in the regular season. Espinoza's decisive strike, coupled with two saves from history-making goalkeeper Tim Melia, helped Sporting eclipse their regular season win total from 2019 and improved the team's record to 5-1-1 during the month of October.
Under the guidance of Manager Peter Vermes, Sporting Kansas City has sealed a return to the postseason after their club-record eight-year playoff streak from 2011-2018 ended last year. Vermes, who has led the club to the 2013 MLS Cup title and three Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup championships, becomes the first head coach in MLS history to reach the playoffs nine times with a single club.
Four days removed from his team's impressive 4-0 defeat of the Colorado Rapids at Children's Mercy Park, Vermes made two changes to the Sporting Kansas City lineup as homegrown midfielder Felipe Hernandez replaced Espinoza and forward Khiry Shelton stepped in for the rested Gianluca Busio.
The first 45 minutes unfolded in pedestrian fashion as both sides combined for a single shot on target. Sporting survived a scare in the early stages, however, when Cincinnati winger Jurgen Locadia burst down the left channel and cut the ball back across the box. Joseph Claude-Gyau had space to unleash a first-time effort, but his shot was scuffed and Siem de Jong's redirected strike carried well over the crossbar.
Having scored in Saturday's win over Colorado, striker Alan Pulido manufactured Sporting's first chance in the 29th minute by charging into the attacking third and spreading a clever pass left to Hernandez, who fended off a challenge from Zico Bailey but was unable to steer his attempt goalward.
On the brink of intermission, Melia etched his name into the record books. Locadia raced onto a well-weighted Haris Medunjanin through ball and pulled the trigger with his left peg, but Melia produced a fine stop at the near post to keep the game scoreless. In doing so, the 34-year-old passed club legend Tony Meola for first on Sporting's all-time chart with 508 saves in the regular season.
The visitors showed increased aggression after the restart as Vermes subbed Espinoza and winger Gerso Fernandes into the contest. Gerso nearly had an instant impact on proceedings, volleying high after Johnny Russell nodded Amadou Dia's chipped delivery back across the face of goal.
Vermes' halftime switch paid dividends in the 57th minute when Espinoza fired Sporting into the lead. The play opened up thanks to an inch-perfect through ball from Kinda that set Pulido free down the left side of the penalty area. The Mexican coolly squared the ball to an open Espinoza, whose left-footed strike beat Cincinnati goalkeeper Spencer Richey. Espinoza tallied his second goal of the season on the play, while Pulido recorded his team-leading fifth assist.
Cincinnati were awarded a golden opportunity on the hour mark when rookie Frankie Amaya won his team a penalty kick after drawing a foul on Roberto Puncec. VAR Hilario Grajeda prompted referee David Gantar to review the play for a potential handball on Amaya just before the foul took place, but the call stood and de Jong stepped to the spot with intentions of drawing Cincinnati level. The Dutchman smacked his attempt off the left post and back out, keeping the hosts off the scoreboard as Melia dropped his remarkable penalty goals conceded percentage to 53.8% -- the lowest in MLS history among keepers with at least 10 penalties faced.
The final half-hour packed plenty of action, with Russell almost catching Richey off his line via an audacious long-range free kick in the 65th minute. A few moments later, Richey sprawled left to parry aside Espinoza's missile through traffic, denying the Honduran his first MLS brace. The Cincinnati gloveman delivered another stop on 72 minutes, punching away a thunderous Pulido free kick.
With 87 minutes on the clock, and just seconds after Russell's shot near the top of the box trickled wide, Cincinnati went incredibly close to salvaging a point in the club's final regular season match at Nippert Stadium. Substitute forward Brandon Vazquez turned brilliantly past his defender and unfurled a shot from the right side of the box, but Melia got the slightest of touches on the ball as it caromed off the near post and skipped out of play.
One point ahead of second-place Seattle Sounders FC in the West, Sporting Kansas City will return to Children's Mercy Park on Sunday to host Minnesota United FC in the club's final regular season home match at Children's Mercy Park. Kickoff is set for 6:30 p.m. CT with tickets available at SeatGeek.com and live coverage on FOX Sports Kansas City, FOX Sports Midwest, FOX Sports GO, ESPN 94.5 FM and La Grande 1340 AM.
Sporting KC Manager Peter Vermes
Thoughts on the match...
Both teams had to deal with it, but I think the field was tough to play on. Obviously you have to have a style of play to win games and you have to also work and fight and all those things. But sometimes you have to be able to stick your nose on the end of a ball to block it for a goal not to be scored and vice versa, you've got to stick your nose on the end of the ball to score. You're going to have to scrape and scrap and fight and bite for everything in the game today. At the end, we got a really good result on the road. Those three points are massive for us at the moment and keep us in the hunt. We've just got to keep working to gain points. I thought that the subs we made in the second half really had an impact in the game. That was probably the difference in the game. We really didn't give much away. The other thing too is there was no one here. They don't have any fans here and it was incredibly stale. You could hear everything in the stadium. It's not what you're used to playing in so I think the guys did a really good job based on the fact it was that kind of an environment.
On clinching a playoff berth...
I think every team's goal in this league is to make the playoffs. That's the standard. And then the next thing is obviously you want to try to get a home playoff game and try to get home field advantage if you can then through the playoffs. Those are all the things you're fighting for week after week and that's what we're fighting for. It's a job well done by the guys in accomplishing that aspect but now we've got to keep fighting here with the last couple games of the season and get ourselves to a place where we have a home playoff game and maybe some home field advantage if we can keep going on.
On the play of Tim Melia...
Tim has one of those careers that you could write a short little film around. He came into the league and bounced between two teams and was a league pool goalkeeper. He's become one of the best goalkeepers in this league. He's had obviously a great career thus far - and he still has a lot ahead of him. He's done well here and he has to continue to keep doing that and we've got a lot of games to play. We haven't won anything yet. We've accomplished getting to the playoffs which again I think is a big goal you want to accomplish each year but the bottom line is we've still got a lot of work to do.
On Alan Pulido setting up the goal...
He reminds me a lot of a player that used to play in the league when I played. That's Jaime Moreno. Jaime could do what the game needed. He was an attacking player. He could score. He could come up with the assist. He could play as a playmaker. He could play in the wide channels. He could do it all. He could hit free kicks. Alan can do the same. He's also incredibly intelligent. He has great street smarts for the game. He knows the tricks of the trades on the field - just a really, really intelligent player and a huge, huge addition to our club.
Sporting Kansas City midfielder Ilie Sanchez
On playing on turf against Cincinnati...
We've trained during the week in our facility and I guess our turf is too good. We felt pretty good in training even when it was turf. You all know we have a great facility, it's a brand new one. This is a good setting too, but the field was very, very difficult for us to be able to play our regular game and I think that we realized that in the first half. We adjusted some things after half timeand that's how we got the win in the end. I'm happy for the three points. It was a really tough game against a really good opponent. I think they needed to win tonight in order to stay alive for the postseason. Fortunately for us, we got the win and we're all happy. We should be happy.
On Cincinnati's style of play...
Right now, we are at a point of the season and also as a team where we are trying to find a way to win the games no matter what we have in front, no matter if we have our A game or our B game or our C game, we have to find a way to win. That's what we're doing -- keeping a really strong mentality from the defense starting with Tim [Melia] and building from that. I think it's the right time to do it and the team looks ready for what's coming.
Sporting Kansas City midfielder Roger Espinoza
On coming off the bench...
When you're on the bench, you get to see a little bit of how the other team is playing, the way your teammates are located on the field and the other team too so I think it gives me an advantage when I come off the bench. Obviously, I have a little more energy too. Whatever my role is, that's what I try to incorporate into my game and this time is was coming on as a sub and helping out the team.
On playing on turf...
On turf, things can be difficult. It slows the game down because the ball takes different bounces, so you have second guesses in the game. Once we scored the goal, first of all we started to press a little more and I think we were trying to manage the game just because it was very difficult. Them playing here all the time is an advantage to them. It's not the way we wanted to play but I think the conditions of the field made us play that way a little bit.
On his goal...
I saw the play develop a little bit and I was trying to get them to switch it earlier. Cincinnati's entire team was shifting the opposite way so once I saw the ball go through from Gadi (Kinda) to Alan, I knew there was a lot of space at the top of the box. Usually I hit those way far out there to the moon but today for some reason I tried to concentrate and thought 'I'm going to hit it low' and I over-concentrated because it was turf, just trying to place it more than trying to overpower it. It went in and I'm happy for that.
2020 MLS Regular Season | Match 20
Nippert Stadium | Cincinnati, Ohio
Weather: 54 degrees and cloudy
Score 1 2 F
Sporting Kansas City (11-6-3, 36 points) 0 1 1
FC Cincinnati (4-13-4, 16 points) 0 0 0
Sporting Kansas City: Tim Melia; Jaylin Lindsey, Roberto Puncec, Andreu Fontas, Amadou Dia; Ilie Sanchez, Felipe Hernandez (Roger Espinoza 46'), Gadi Kinda (Cam Duke 81'); Johnny Russell (C), Alan Pulido (Erik Hurtado 90'), Khiry Shelton (Gerso Fernandes 46')
Subs Not Used: John Pulskamp, Matt Besler, Luis Martins, Graham Smith, Daniel Salloi
FC Cincinnati: Spencer Richey; Zico Bailey (Saad Abdul-Salaam 78'), Nick Hagglund, Tom Pettersson (James McLaughlin 90'), Andrew Gutman; Kamohelo Mokotjo (Brandon Vazquez 80'), Haris Medunjanin (C); Joseph-Claude Gyau, Frankie Amaya, Jurgen Locadia (Yuya Kubo 77'); Siem de Jong
Subs Not Used: Robert Edwards, Mathieu Deplagne, Kendall Waston, Thomas McCabe, Rashawn Dally
SKC -- Roger Espinoza 2 (Alan Pulido 5, Gadi Kinda 4) 57'
SKC -- Roberto Puncec (yellow card; unsporting behavior) 60'
Stat SKC CIN
Shots 13 13
Shots on Goal 4 2
Saves 2 3
Fouls 12 12
Offsides 0 1
Corner Kicks 4 6
Referee: David Gantar
Assistant Referee: Andrew Bigelow
Assistant Referee: Gjovalin Bori
Fourth Official: Joshua Encarnacion
VAR: Hilario Grajeda
AVAR: Peter Balciunas
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