KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Sporting Kansas City earned a hard-fought 2-1 victory over LAFC on Sunday at Children's Mercy Park to finish first in the Western Conference and lock up a No. 1 seed in the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs.
Roger Espinoza fired Sporting KC ahead with a stunning goal in the 37th minute, but the hosts were reduced to 10 men on the hour mark when Seth Sinovic received a red card for a handball infraction inside the box. Carlos Vela buried the ensuing penalty kick to draw LAFC level, only for Daniel Salloi to strike back in the 79th minute to seal a thrilling win on Decision Day as the 2018 MLS regular season came to a dramatic end.
With the No. 1 seed locked up, Sporting KC receives a Knockout Round bye and will begin their postseason campaign in the two-legged Western Conference semifinals, playing away in the first leg on Sunday, Nov. 4, before hosting the decisive second leg on Sunday, Nov. 11. Kickoff times and broadcast details for those matches will be announced in the near term.
Sunday's monumental tilt at sun-drenched Children's Mercy Park pitted the top two teams in the Western Conference battling for the division's top seed, serving as the marquee matchup on Decision Day as 11 MLS contests unfolded simultaneously. Salloi, who has now scored the winning goal each of Sporting KC's three straight victories, nearly found the back of the net just 15 seconds into the match, but his left-footed effort was palmed aside by LAFC goalkeeper Tyler Miller.
Salloi, Sporting KC's 2018 golden boot winner with 11 MLS goals and 13 across all competitions, forced Miller into another save shortly thereafter when he settled a pass from Johnny Russell and unleashed an audacious long-range blast that the LAFC gloveman snared cleanly.
LAFC entered Sunday with a league-best 35 away goals and first tested Sporting KC goalkeeper in the 30th minute. Vela did well to pirouette past a defender and curl a shot goalward from the right side of the box, but Melia dove to make his lone save of the afternoon in style.
A sellout crowd at Children's Mercy Park erupted eight minutes before halftime when Espinoza's individual brilliance resulted in the opening goal. Graham Zusi advanced into the attacking third and picked out Espinoza with a pocket of space in the central channel. The Honduran promptly took advantage, sending a 30-yard rocket into the top right corner for his career-high third goal of the season and his first at home since 2016.
Both sides traded near misses early in the second half. Salloi was denied by Miller on the breakaway, having been played through by Espinoza, before Zusi slid to block Diego Rossi's attempt from a tight angle.
Making his 100th regular season start in a Sporting KC uniform, Ike Opara intervened heroically in the 59th minute to keep his side in front. Former Sporting KC forward Latif Blessing's low curler was bound for the far corner, but Opara was stationed on the goal line to hammer the ball away and extinguish the danger.
The game's complexion changed significantly with 60 minutes on the clock. LAFC forward Adama Diomande latched onto a corner kick and steered a powerful header toward goal, where Sinovic cleared the ball off the goal line. The act initially went unpunished, but Video Assistant Referee Mark Geiger prompted a review of the play. Head official Allen Chapman deemed Sinovic to have committed a handball and brandished a red card to Sinovic, giving LAFC a numerical advantage for the remainder of the day.
Vela bagged the resulting spot-kick for his team-leading 14th goal of the season, setting up a tense final half hour. He almost doubled his tally in the 71st minute when LAFC forced a turnover in Sporting KC's defensive third, but the Mexican international missed the target by a matter of inches.
Down a man but undeterred, Sporting KC reclaimed the lead a minute after Vela's miss. Khiry Shelton swung in a low cross from the right wing that Salloi settled and tucked low into the left corner, tying a single-season club record with his sixth game-winning goal of the MLS campaign.
LAFC pushed forward in search of a late leveler, but were unable to crack a resolute Sporting KC backline and consequently fell from second to fourth place in the Western Conference standings.
Sporting KC will learn its conference semifinal opponent upon the conclusion of the single-elimination Knockout Round on Thursday night. Manager Peter Vermes' side will face the lowest-seeded team to advance from the Knockout Round, with No. 3 LAFC hosting No. 6 Real Salt Lake and No. 4 FC Dallas hosting No. 5 Portland Timbers.