Sporting Kansas City punched their ticket to the Western Conference semi-finals with a 3-1 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps on Saturday.
First-half strikes from Khiry Shelton and Nicolas Isimat-Mirin either side of a Cristian Dajome penalty gave SKC the advantage, setting the stage for veteran right-back Graham Zusi to seal the deal in style after the break.
SKC created the better opportunities and drew first blood on 17 minutes, Shelton bundling the ball into the far corner following some great work down the right from Zusi.
But the Whitecaps always looked dangerous, just an incisive pass or driving run away from cutting the Kansas City defense open. They finally managed just that in the 39th minute as Dajome sent Tim Melia the wrong way from the penalty spot after an obvious handball call on Luis Martins.
If Whitecaps head coach Vanni Sartini was overjoyed at the equalizer, he’ll have been absolutely furious at his side falling behind again on the stroke of half-time. Especially given the calamitous nature of their defending from a Johnny Russell corner, failing to clear the ball and eventually seeing Isimat-Mirin poking the ball home with his knee from close range.
Sartini had clearly offered some strong words in the locker room at half time because Vancouver came out like a house on fire after the break. Dajome and Ryan Gauld looked particularly dangerous as the Canadian side started to move through the gears in possession.
But the ‘Caps couldn’t convert their pressure into meaningful chances and were punished in the 58th minute as Zusi let rip from 25 yards out, leaving goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau with absolutely no chance. The goal was a perfect reward for the veteran right-back, who has enjoyed a resurgent 2021 campaign.
Still, the Whitecaps wouldn’t die, continuing to pile pressure on the SKC defense. Center-back Andy Rose put a free header straight down the throat of Melia from a wonderful Gauld delivery. That was just minutes before Brian White forced an incredible save from Melia, who had to go all the way down to his bottom-right corner to keep out the American striker’s header.
Though they started to run out of steam, Vancouver never gave up the ghost and thought they’d pulled a goal back in the final five minutes of normal time, only to see Lucas Cavallini’s strike ruled out for offside.
For the second year in a row, Sporting Kansas City made it through Round one of the Playoffs and will await the winner of the Seattle Sounders and Real Salt Lake in the Western Conference semi-finals. For Vancouver, this marks the end of what has to be considered a successful campaign, with Sartini turning things around and guiding them back into the Playoffs for the first time since 2017.
Over the past couple of seasons, you started to get the sense it was time to retire for Graham Zusi, who has suffered from poor form, lack of fitness, and slowing legs. But not in 2021.
The 35-year-old has been inspired for Sporting Kansas City, ranking third at the club for blocks (42) and clearances (55), and second for interceptions (57). Remarkably, he’s only been dribbled past nine times all year. All that experience has been cashed in for a supreme defensive turnout in 2021.
But Zusi also managed four assists in the regular season and was third only to Johnny Russell (42) and Daniel Salloi (40) for chances created (34). This was where the veteran impressed so much on Saturday.
It was his delivery that created Shelton’s opening goal, pushing high up the pitch to athletically direct a Salloi cross back in front of goal and into the path of his forward.
Then there was his goal to finish the match. That glorious, unstoppable strike. Zusi saw how the Whitecaps were threatening and decided to drop a nuke on the match, ending it there and then. From there, he continued to play a big part in SKC closing out the night.
Sporting Kansas City won’t be everybody’s pick to win MLS Cup. But in Zusi, they have a resurgent, gifted, and supremely experienced full-back – he’s just one of a number of battle-hardened players on this roster who could take SKC all the way. At the very least, Zusi was the star that guided Peter Vermes’ men through a challenging Round One clash.