It was drama a-plenty at Children's Mercy Park as Sporting Kansas City twice threw away a lead against San Jose Earthquakes to finally advance on penalties to meet the winner of Minnesota United vs Colorado Rapids in the Western Conference.
Story of the match
Sporting got off to an excellent start, despite seeing very little of the ball in the opening stages. After the home side's first real break forward, it was Roger Espinoza that leapt highest to head Peter Vermes' side in front after just five minutes.
Kansas then looked the most likely to score the next goal in the match, but on 22 minutes it was all square. A superb diagonal ball picked out Cristian Espinoza, who cut the ball back inside for Carlos Fierro to hit the ball goalwards. Although the goal was credited to Fierro through the social media channels, the ball did take a huge deflection off of Roberto Puncec before looping into the net.
Incredibly, the Earthquakes weren't done there. A quick counter attack saw Espinoza race down the right flank and cut the ball back for Shea Salinas, who finished smartly to put San Jose into an unlikely lead. Their pace on the counter attack was clearly their strength and the visiting side were taking full advantage of slack Kansas marking.
As the game edged closer to half time, tempers started to flare. First, it was Winston Reid who was perhaps harshly booked for a challenge, with Head Coach Vermes spoken to by the referee. Reid and Espinoza then had a coming together soon afterwards with the referee anxious to keep a lid on things and not have to make any unnecessary cautions or dismissals. Good work from Sanchez before the break saw an opening for Gianluca Busio, but his shot was blocked.
Despite starting the second half in front, it only took two minutes for Kansas City to draw level. A corner by Ilie Sanchez was missed by the entire San Jose defense, leaving Winston Reid to make amends for his defensive mistake in the first half by simply tapping the ball in on the line. On review though, the goal was given to Sanchez as it was deemed that the ball had already crossed the line before Reid got his touch.
Sporting had the better of the play second half, but San Jose nearly won it two minutes from time. Chris Wondolowki should have scored from close range, but Tim Melia produced a world class save to deny the veteran striker. The miss proved crucial too - a minute later, Kansas went ahead with a well worked goal that saw Busio finish confidently to give what the home side thought was the winner.
Wondolowski was to have the last word, though. In the 97th minute, he headed in from close range to give the Quakes a deserved equaliser and take the game to extra time. The Kansas backline switched off and allowed the all time leading goalscorer to run untracked and snatch the victory away from the home side.
Wondolowski then had the best chance of extra time to win it, but Melia stood firm and the game went to penalties. Kansas kept their nerve with goalkeeper Melia saving all three penalties he faced to advance 3-0 on spot kicks to set up a tie with either Minnesota or Colorado in the next round.
Takeaways from the match
Fine margins prove crucial
San Jose matched Kansas throughout in a thoroughly entertaining match, and had the majority of possession throughout. Yellow cards and calculated fouls punctured the flow of the game in the second half when it was locked at 2-2, and Melia's save from Wondo's header inspired Busio to go up the other end and score. It looked like that was going to be the winner, before Wondo went up the other end in the seventh minute of added time to equalize, send it to extra time and then penalties.
A great advert for MLS
Both sides went for it in this game, with end to end action and drama to the last second of regulation time. What was excellent about this more than anything else was the approximately 3,000 spectators in the stadium to watch. Fans have been severely missed throughout the post-shut down games, and although not at full capacity the atmosphere was certainly elevated higher than the last four months have seen.
Sporting Kansas City: Melia; Lindsey, Puncec, Reid, Dia; Sanchez; Russell, Espinoza, Busio, Gerso; Shelton.
Substitutions: Pulskamp, Fontas, Martins, Smith, Kinda, Duke, Hernandez, Hurtado, Salloi.
San Jose Earthquakes: Marcinkowski; Lima, Jungwirth, Alanis, Lopez; Espinoza, Judson, Yueill, Salinas; Fierro, Wondolowski.
Substitutions: Vega, Thompson, Marie, Beason, Calvillo, Fernandes, Haji, Rios, Cowell.