Sporting KC players celebrate after shutting the San Jose Earthquakes out in a 3-0 shootout following a 3-3 draw in Kansas City in the first round of the MLS playoffs (AP News photo)
by Marko Ukalovic
KANSAS CITY, Kan.-If Chris Wondolowski decides to call it a career, he’ll have one amazing, emotional memory to have finished it.
Wondo’s equalizer goal in the final seconds off stoppage time wasn’t enough to get his team to the next round of the playoffs. Sporting KC’s Tim Melia stopped all three penalty shots he faced in the penalty kick round to give his team a 3-3 (3-0 PK) victory over the San Jose Earthquakes on Sunday afternoon at Children’s Mercy Park.
Sporting KC advanced to the Western Conference semi-finals where they will host Minnesota United, who shutout the Colorado Rapids 3-0 in its first round matchup. San Jose hasn’t won a playoff match since 2010.
San Jose was all but dead with five minutes left in stoppage time when Gianluca Busio’s goal 36 seconds into stoppage time gave Sporting KC a 3-2 lead. Just moments before Busio’s goal, Wondo’s header from point blank range was knocked away by Melia and off the left goal post that led to Sporting KC’s counter attack.
Matias Almeyda’s squad had the “Goonies never say die” attitude with seconds remaining in the six minute of stoppage when Cristian Espinoza sent in a left footed cross to where only Wondolowski could get a header on it and into the lower left corner of the net sending the game into extra time.
It was only Wondo’s second career post-season goal but the biggest of the match for San Jose.
The Quakes had a golden opportunity in the 97th minute when Espinoza led a two-on-one counter attack with Wondo. Espinoza raced down the pitch for 60 yards with a Sporting KC defender draped all over him before his shot attempt went wide left.
San Jose had Sporting KC on the ropes during both 15-minute halves of extra time but could not get the winning goal despite maintaining the majority of the possession in the final 30 minutes.
“I’d like to congratulate Sporting Kansas City for making it through. What I told the players is what I feel: I felt like we gave our last drop of sweat until the last second. It was a positive year. We competed in two tournaments and in both of them we competed. For moments it seemed like San Jose was dead, but we came back,” Almeyda said.
Melia, who is one of the best goal keepers when it comes to shootouts. The veteran goalkeeper stopped attempts from Oswaldo Alanís, Jackson Yueill and Espinoza. Melia’s teammates took care of their end of the shootout with goals from Johnny Russell, Ilie Sánchez and Khiry Shelton.
Sporting KC took advantage of the Quakes deer in the headlights start to the match. In the fouth minute, Russell sent in a cross off a corner kick where Roger Espinoza headed into the back corner of the net past Quakes goalkeeper J.T. Marcinkowski for his first career playoff goal.
San Jose came into the match having been the worst team in the MLS with goals conceded off set pieces (10) while Sporting KC came in as the best team in the MLS scoring off set pieces (12).
The Quakes stormed back in the 22nd minute when Espinoza sent in a cross that Carlos Fierro’s attempt deflected off the face of a Sporting KC defender into the back of the net. Fierro was credited with his first career playoff goal.
San Jose gained its only lead in the 35th minute off a quick counter attack. Espinoza once again led the charge down the right side where his cross found a wide open Shea Salinas into the middle from 10 yards out and Salinas buried the ball past Melia for a 2-1 lead.
“Yeah, it was wild,” said Salinas. “For me, it was an extremely emotional game just not knowing how many more of these opportunities I’m going to have. To be 2-2 when I was subbed off, I was excited for Cade [Cowell] because I know he can make a difference, but it was also really difficult because I now didn’t have control. It was emotional, but for us to fight back, the cross from Cristian [Espinoza], and the goal from Wondo [Chris Wondolowski] there at the end was just insane. My heart still hurts a little bit from the game, but it was an awesome experience.”
It didn’t take long for Sporting KC to regain the momentum in the second half. Once again off a corner kick. This time Busio crossed the ball into the middle where Ilie headed the ball off the shoulder of Alanís into the back of the net for the equalizer.
The Man of the Match, Melia finished the evening with five official saves before the shootout in earning the victory. Marcinkowski also finished with fives saves in the losing effort.
If this was Wondolowski’s last match of his storied career he leaves the game as the MLS All-Time goal scorer with 166 goals.
“Spent. I think that’s the best emotion to describe it right now,” said Wondo when asked what emotions he was feeling after the game. “We all left it out there for 120 minutes, and to be honest, I think both teams did. I think it was one of the cleanest and most physical playoff games. I thought both teams came to tackle but still out there playing the game. We’re connecting passes. Do I wish we won? Yes, absolutely. I think that we did a lot of correct things and things that we’re proud of, but in the long run, we didn’t do enough.”
Wondo also said he still has passion for the game and would love to come back but hasn’t made that decision just yet.
“I know that the door is open, but I was fully committed to putting everything I have into this year, and I did. Now I need to re-evaluate. I just want to re-evaluate everything: my personal life, my life where I want to be, and also where the club is to see the direction that it’s going.”
GAME NOTES: San Jose finished with six corner kicks. Sporting KC had five.
San Jose is now 4-8-2 when they have conceded the first goal of the match.
The Earthquakes now hold a 12-13-1 overall postseason record, including a 4-10-0 record in true road matches.
This was the fifth time in Quakes history to go to overtime and first since Nov. 15, 2003. It also marked the first time in Earthquakes history that a postseason match was decided by penalty kicks.
San Jose scored 3+ goals in a playoff match for the eighth time in club history and first time since Nov. 4, 2010. It also marked just the fourth time in club history the team has scored twice in the first half of a playoff match and first time since Nov. 23, 2003.
Espinoza was involved in all three goals, tallying two assists. He became the first player to record 2+ assists in a single playoff match for the Earthquakes since Brian Mullan on Nov. 23, 2003.
At 37 years and 299 days, Wondolowski became the oldest player in Earthquakes history and sixth oldest player in MLS history to score in the postseason. His goal, scored with 96:49 on the clock, was the third-latest non-overtime goal in MLS playoff history and the second-latest lead-changing goal.
Fierro tallied one goal and one assist, both firsts of his MLS playoff career. He became the fifth player in club history to tally at least one goal and one assist in a playoff match, joining Bobby Convey, Landon Donovan (4), Jamil Walker and Manny Lagos.
Cade Cowell became the youngest player in club history to make a postseason appearance at 17 years and 40 days.
Andy Rios tallied an assist on Wondolowski’s goal, the first assist of his MLS playoff career.