Three thoughts on Sporting Kansas City’s 3-1 extra time victory over the visiting New England Revolution on Wednesday night, which lifted SKC to a 4-3 aggregate win in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
• Bieler breaks the curse -- The story of Sporting’s playoff failures centered on the failure of its attacking players to come through in the clutch. When Wednesday’s match entered overtime, no SKC forward or midfielder had scored a postseason goal in more than five full 90-minute matches.
Claudio Bieler seemed unlikely to break the streak. The Argentine Designated Player had been injured, or in SKC coach Peter Vermes’ doghouse, or both, for two months. Even though he’s the club’s leading goal scorer this season, Bieler didn’t even make the trip to Foxborough for last weekend’s opening leg.
SKC (18-11-7) got to overtime tied, 3-3, on aggregate thanks to strikes from the club’s leading active playoff goal scorer, central defender Aurélien Collin (three) and left back Seth Sinovic, who’s never tallied a regular season goal but now has two in the knockout stage.
SKC was putting immense pressure on the Revs (15-12-9) all night (the hosts dominated possession, 64.3 percent to 35.7 percent and took 10 corner kicks), but once again the sharp end of the attack lacked precision. Until Bieler, who entered the match in the 84th minute, finally delivered. Benny Feilhaber, who was sent packing by New England over the winter, got the play started with an alert steal on the right flank. He took the space in front of him then hit a low cross toward the penalty spot, where an unmarked Bieler guided his first-time shot past goalkeeper Matt Reis.
It was a precision finish from a precision player, and as a result SKC is through to the MLS Cup semifinals with a redeemed striker in tow.
• New England has plenty to be proud of -- The Revolution were this year’s surprise playoff team by default. No one outside of Gillette Stadium expected New England to make a run in 2013.
New England hadn’t made the postseason since 2009 and if Jay Heaps had been told before the season that he’d get a combined six goals out of Saer Sène and Jerry Bengtson, he might have quit and returned to the TV booth.
But a core of young players came through, led by Diego Fagundez and Kelyn Rowe, while Reis (who was outstanding on Wednesday before getting hurt late) and Defender of the Year candidate José Gonçalves shored up the back. Heaps will have to replace forward Juan Agudelo, who’s off to England with Stoke City, but the pieces are in place for a long-awaited thaw outside Boston. The Revs are fun to watch, talented and now have some valuable playoff seasoning to take into 2014.
• Sporting will get its rematch -- It had to be this way. For the third straight season, SKC and the Houston Dynamo will meet in the MLS Cup playoffs and for the second time, the series will determine the East's representative in the final. Houston eliminated SKC at Sporting Park in 2011 and 2012.
There are no more moral victories at this point in Kansas City’s soccer resurgence, There's “Cup or bust” feeling around the club this fall. There’s also a sense that to clear that final hurdle, to really earn and deserve that elusive title, Sporting has to beat its nemesis. It has to get past Dom and the Dynamo to genuinely prove its championship mettle.