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Sporting KC can't break through in Western Conference semifinals loss at Houston Dynamo FC

MLS Sporting KC Dynamo Soccer
Posted at 8:17 PM, Nov 26, 2023
and last updated 2023-11-26 22:09:36-05

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — After being on its heels most of the first half, Sporting Kansas City played on its front foot for the final 45 minutes plus stoppage time Sunday against the Houston Dynamo FC in the MLS Cup Playoffs Western Conference semifinals.

Sporting KC, which believed it had earned a penalty kick that could have tied the game late in the first half, peppered Houston’s box with crosses and outshot the Dynamo in the second half.

"I thought we had the better of the chances in the game," Sporting KC Manager and Technical Director Peter Vermes said. "They finished on a set piece. ... They really didn't have much. They scored on a corner, but we had the better chances in the game."

But the visiting side never managed to breach Houston’s goal at Shell Energy Stadium during a season-ending 1-0 loss.

“We didn’t look like ourselves tonight,” Sporting KC forward Johnny Russell said. “We looked nervous. We maybe gave them too much respect. We tried something different to stop their key players and we really didn't stick to our game plan the way we would have liked, so it’s a tough one to take. I don’t feel like we really gave the best account of ourselves.”

Set pieces have vexed Sporting KC at times this season and again in the 39th minute on Sunday night during the 2023 Audi MLS Cup Playoffs semifinals.

Houston had ramped up the pressure and dominated possession in the minutes leading up to Héctor Herrera’s corner kick, which was nothing particularly clever or special.

He simply lofted the ball to the center of the penalty area, where Franco Escobar rose to meet it for a free header into the upper left corner of Tim Melia’s goal.

Sporting KC nearly caught the Dynamo, who had more than 70% of the first-half possession, napping after going down a goal.

Alan Pulido found himself running free at goalkeeper Steve Clark, who came off his line to stuff the Sporting KC forward’s effort and parry it to the right.

Daniel Salloi had a chance to pounce and coach the goal, but Erik Sviatchenko cleared the shot off the line.

The ball appeared to hit Sviatchenko’s left arm, leading to forceful appeals for a handball from Sporting KC.

It’s not a hard decision to make when you have replay,” Vermes said. “When a player picks his arms up to make himself a little bigger, even if he has his hands out to the side, it doesn’t matter. He saves the ball with his hands.

“... I’ve seen the replay already and there’s no doubt in my mind it’s a handball. Actually, it’s a handball and then a red card, because it’s stopping a goal-scoring situation. But unfortunately, they didn’t call it.”

VAR declined to have referee Guido Gonzales Jr. head to a monitor to review the play for a possible penalty kick as the Dynamo led 1-0 at the break.

“It’s a handball for me,” Russell said. “I’m not going sit here and say that’s why we lost the game. It’s not. But in games as tight as this and occasions like this, I don’t understand why referees aren’t 100% sure. He’s saying it hits his chest. It clearly doesn’t, so I don’t know why you’re leaving it to VAR.”

Had the penalty been awarded, Sporting KC likely would have tied the game and played the rest of the game with man advantage after Sviatchenko was sent off. It certainly would have changed how the final 50 minutes were played.

"We'll probably get some form of apology as usual during the week," Russell said.

After starting the season a dismal 0-7-3, Sporting KC became the best team in MLS record-wise down the stretch to reach the playoffs then eliminated top-seeded St. Louis City SC in the opening round of the playoffs.

“I was proud to be part of this team and to witness the fight back after the early struggles,” Russell said.

Goalkeeper Tim Melia, who made two saves, agreed, “We could have come out of this game and continued to advance, but it does not take away from what we accomplished during the season. We showed a tremendous amount of grit. We showed a tremendous amount of belief in one another.”

Vermes declined to speculate on the future of the roster, including the possible retirement of long-time stalwarts Graham Zusi and Roger Espinoza.