Sporting Kansas City (16-7-7, 55 points) punched its ticket to the 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs in resounding fashion, earning a 2-1 road win over Western Conference leaders Seattle Sounders FC (17-7-7, 58 points) on Saturday afternoon at Lumen Field in Seattle.
Remi Walter hammered home his first MLS goal in the fourth minute and captain Johnny Russell extended his club-record scoring streak to seven matches with a 79th-minute winner as second-place Sporting climbed within three points of Seattle at the top of the West and secured its 10th playoff appearance in 11 seasons.
Saturday’s result saw Sporting manager Peter Vermes take sole possession of fourth place in MLS history with 171 regular season coaching wins and set a league record by clinching his 17th appearance in the MLS Cup Playoffs as a player or a coach.
Sporting also became just the second club in MLS history to win at Seattle twice in the same regular season and equaled a single-season club record with its eighth away victory of the 2021 campaign.
Boasting a perfect 7-0-0 record in matches immediately following losses this season, Sporting will return to Children’s Mercy Park on Wednesday to host longtime rival LA Galaxy.
The contest will kick off at 7:50 p.m. Wednesday with national coverage beginning at 7:30 p.m. on FS1 and FOX Deportes. Tickets for the match are available at SeatGeek.com.
Vermes made two injury-induced changes to the Sporting lineup from a 2-1 loss at Vancouver Whitecaps FC last Sunday. Jose Mauri and MLS MVP candidate Daniel Salloi missed with ankle problems, prompting the return of center back Nicolas Isimat-Mirin — who landed his first start since Aug. 7 — and veteran midfielder Roger Espinoza, who logged his 250th regular season start in a Sporting uniform.
Ilie Sanchez moved from central defense into his long-held holding midfield spot and Gadi Kinda was deployed as a false nine up top.
Walter landed an absolute haymaker inside four minutes to give the upstart visitors a 1-0 lead. Khiry Shelton and Russell combined neatly on the right edge of the box before the latter swung a low delivery across the face of the six-yard area.
Seattle goalkeeper Stefan Frei punched clear only as far as Kinda, whose rebound effort near the penalty spot was blocked through traffic. Luis Martins converged on the ball and crucially won possession by poking the ball to Walter, who lashed a left-footed strike into the top left corner to open his MLS scoring account.
Brimming with confidence, Sporting could have doubled its advantage after seven minutes. Russell was once again a danger man, flicking a pass into the path of Kinda. He swiftly beat a defender at the top of the box and uncorked a right-footed blast that screamed narrowly high.
The Sounders were kept at bay in the opening stages, although Sporting goalkeeper Tim Melia was called to action in the 15th minute when he corralled Nicolas Benezet’s well-struck shot. The 35-year-old veteran picked up another first-half save near halftime, thwarting U.S. international Cristian Roldan.
Near the half-hour interval, Russell asked further questions of the Seattle backline by chipping in a cross from the right endline. Espinoza was there to pull the trigger, but his effort was deflected behind for a corner kick.
On Russell’s ensuing delivery, the ball skipped through a swarm of bodies and was nearly prodded home by Sounders defender Shane O’Neill, whose blushes were saved as his redirect carried inches over the bar.
Outplayed in the first half, Seattle responded in the early moments of the second period with a deluge of attacking pressure.
Melia and Alex Roldan were shown yellow cards after a hasty altercation in which Cristian Roldan blundered into Melia amid a goalmouth scramble.
Shortly thereafter, Sporting center back Andreu Fontas blocked a side volley attempt from former Kansas City midfielder Jimmy Medranda, who was deployed as a left wing back on Saturday.
The Sounders restored parity in the 58th minute as Sporting came undone on a corner kick. Cristian Roldan glanced Joao Paulo’s service to the back post where Benezet nodded into a gaping net for his third goal of the campaign.
Cristian Roldan almost went from provider to goal scorer in the 64th minute, planting a powerful header on target, but Melia produced a phenomenal reflex save at point-blank range and Isimat-Mirin ushered clear upfield to extinguish the danger. Sporting’s gloveman racked up another stop on Roldan 10 minutes later, dropping low to his right to smother a seething turf-trimmer.
Russell had bagged seven goals in his previous six games, and fired Sporting back in front with 11 minutes remaining. In a move that punctuated a dazzling 38-pass sequence, Espinoza charged into the attacking third and played an inch-perfect diagonal through ball to Russell. The Scottish winger took a touch on the right side of the box and sent a side-footed effort past Frei for his 12th goal of 2021, all of which have come since the start of July.
Sporting defended bravely to the very end as Seattle piled numbers forward in search of a late lever. The Sounders went close to leveling terms in the 93rd minute, but Cristian Roldan’s booming strike rattled the crossbar and referee Ismail Elfath blew the full-time whistle seconds later.