Sporting Kansas City claim MLS Cup in penalty shootout
Sporting Kansas City are Major League Soccer champions, after an engrossing MLS Cup final and a tense penalty shootout saw them beat in subzero temperatures at Sporting Park.
After the game had ended 1-1 after extra time, the penalty shootout ebbed one way and another before Lovell Palmer's 10th penalty for RSL crashed back off the underside of the bar, sparking mass celebrations among the frozen Kansas City fans.
It was a result Sporting deserved on balance, for their positive play throughout most of the game, though RSL more than played their part in one of the more exciting finals of recent times. But for a couple of other unkind bounces off the woodwork before Palmer's final, decisive, one, RSL could have been celebrating instead of the home side, having taken a lead early in the second half through Alvaro Saborio.
Aurelien Collin cancelled that goal out with a header off one of Sporting's many set pieces with just 15 minutes to go. From then on all the pressure came from Sporting, as they sought an Cup to go with the Open Cup they won last season, to cap the revival brought about in recent years by coach Peter Vermes and an enlightened and committed ownership.
In a feisty first half, most of the early fouls were committed by RSL, as they tried to repel a Sporting side who clearly wanted to put them under pressure from the start. The first significant moment though, was not a shot on goal, but Sporting midfield enforcer Ori Rosell being forced to limp out of the game after just 5 minutes with a sprained ankle.
Despite that setback, Sporting pressed almost unopposed for the first 20 minutes, but for all their pressure they couldn't carve out many clear cut chances, though they were forcing repeat set piece opportunities from corners and free kicks that would cause occasional worries in the RSL box.
Salt Lake gradually began to relieve the pressure and just before the half hour they forced a decent chance. Aurelien Collin fouled Alvaro Saborio just inside the Sporting half. From the free kick the ball was spread wide then floated into the box where Jimmy Nielsen's punch under pressure only found the lurking Robbie Findley at the back post. Findley took what looked like a measured shot from a narrow angle but the ball bounced off the post and squirmed back into the recovering keeper's arms.
The best chance of the rest of the half went to Sporting, as Real were slow to clear their lines in stoppage time, and Dom Dwyer was swiftest to react to a ball over the top. But as he shaped to shoot, Nick Rimando charged off his line and spread himself well to smother the shot.
There was a hesitancy to the game at times, as players, perhaps mindful of Rosell's fate, seemed wary on their feet on a rough, cold surface. That said, neither side seemed particularly keen to help each other stay on their feet, with numerous RSL fouls and finally a mass melee breaking out just before the half, following a couple of pushes by Saborio on Benny Feilhaber. Saborio was booked, and would walk a tightrope for the rest of the game, as would Sporting's Aurelien Collin, with significant repercussions later in the game.
RSL came out better in the second half, and in the 52nd minute they took the lead. Beckerman clipped a beautiful first time ball forward from a ball won by Gil, and Saborio spun away from Aurelien Collin and hit a low shot past Nielsen at his near post. Sporting could have no complaints as Chance Myers had failed to step up, while RSL had their first ever goal at Sporting Park on the biggest possible occasion.
In the 62nd minute Beckerman was unlucky not to double RSL's lead, as he looked up outside the box and crashed a deflected shot past Nielsen and off the post. The game was stretching though, and a minute later Wingert had to make a superb defensive interception in front of his own net, as Myers looked to touch a cross home at point blank range. Wingert aggravated his shoulder injury in doing so though and soon had to come out for Lovell Palmer as RSL tried to close out the game.
If there's been an achilles heel for this RSL side, however, it's doing just that. Despite coming close to sealing it in the 73rd minute, when Javier Morales produced the deftest of chips from the edge of the box, beating Nielsen but rebounding off the inside of the post, across the face of goal, and spinning out by the byline, they would soon concede an equalizer.
In the 76th minute Aurelien Collin rose higher than Chris Schuler to meet Zusi's corner near the penalty spot, and headed past Rimando into the corner. After a foul on Findley a few minutes earlier, there's an argument that the Frenchman was lucky not to be off the field for a second yellow, but now he took his opportunity to plunder his third goal of the playoffs.
An already lively game started to go from end to end as both sides tried to avoid extra time. Claudio Bieler, on for Dwyer, blazed over in the 79th min after the ball was touched into his path in the box, and Saborio was denied as Seth Sinovic threw himself in front of his shot in the 85th minute. Sinovic had to be on hand again a moment later as RSL countered off a Sporting set piece and the defender had to sprint to poke the ball off Grabavoy's toes as he shaped to shoot.
Nobody else could make a decisive intervention though and the game went into extra time, with the atmosphere in the stadium heating up, even as the temperatures plummeted.
Sporting came out strongest in extra time and should have taken the lead early. In the 94th minute Graham Zusi finally got a shot on target in a playoff game, and a fierce one too, only for that rarest of events to be met by the rarest of saves — a reaction fingertip over the bar from Nick Rimando.
Sporting continued to press though, aided by the crowd and RSL's habit of conceding silly free kicks in their own half. The visitors were pinned back in their own half for much of the first period of extra time yet it was them who went closest to scoring next as Findley's cross to the far post was headed home at the back post by Alvaro Saborio, only for him to be correctly called marginally offside.
In the second half of extra time, Sporting were still on the front foot, but both sides were visibly tiring now, as the intensity of the game and the conditions took their toll. There was still time for Saborio to try an audacious lob from distance to steal the game, but Nielsen, who'd looked ponderous in his movements all game, was able to watch this one safely over.
And so to penalties. After RSL missed their first two penalties, Sporting looked to be coasting to victory only for Zusi to miss the fifth penalty that would have clinched it and for Sporting to be a kick away from heartbreak as Sebastian Velasquez stepped up for RSL. But Jimmy Nielsen dove to his left to catch that one and the shootout went on deep into the roster of kickers. Someone had to miss though, and it was Palmer, prompting the Sporting bench to clear and Salt Lake's captain Kyle Beckerman to instantly turn and walk towards his team's fans to thank them for their support, even as they witnessed their team's second Cup final loss of the season.
Elsewhere on the field Peter Vermes was celebrating while Jason Kreis was left to face a probable disappointing end to his RSL career as he ponders an offer from Manchester City to manage the New York City franchise. That's for the future though. Tonight belongs to Kansas City.
Sporting Kansas City: Nielsen (C); Myers, Collin, Besler, Sinovic; Rosell, Nagamura, Feilhaber; Zusi, Dwyer, Sapong
Real Salt Lake: Rimando, Beltran, Schuler, Borchers, Wingert, Beckerman, Grabavoy, Gil, Morales , Findley, Saborio