Timbers outlast Sporting KC in epic penalty shootout

The end of this sensational Knockout Round game between Portland and Sporting Kansas City arrived with both goalkeepers at the penalty spot. The two teams could not separate themselves over the course of 120 minutes in this 2-2 draw at Providence Park or settle their affairs in the first 10 rounds of this epic shootout. Sporting defender Saad Abdul-Salaam even saw his potentially decisive attempt somehow hit both posts and ping clear in the ninth round.

Those staggering realities left it to Timbers goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey and Sporting goalkeeper Jon Kempin to determine the winner. Kwarasey assumed his duties first. He thumped his spot kick into the net to provide the Timbers with the narrow lead. Kempin — only inserted as a second-half substitute after Tim Melia exited with a suspected head injury — shouldered his burden next. Kwarasey dove to his right and stopped the penalty to give the Timbers a 7-6 win on penalties and send them through to a two-legged Western Conference semifinal against Vancouver Whitecaps.

It provided a barely comprehensible finish to a gripping game. Portland claimed the lead through Rodney Wallace just before the hour, but Sporting equalized through Kevin Ellis’ header two minutes from time. Krisztian Nemeth sent Sporting in front with a sublimely taken goal in extra time only to see substitute Maxi Urruti equalize moments before the end.

Those fine margins forced the match into penalties and eventually etched this match into MLS playoff history. Kwarasey eventually emerged as the hero to arrange a Cascadia clash against the Whitecaps with the first leg ahead in Portland on Sunday.

Portland heeded the painful lessons of the 1-0 defeat at Providence Park earlier this month and opened brightly in a bid to grasp firm control. Those measures pinned Sporting inside its own half, but the visitors managed to survive a fraught early period nevertheless.

Melia foreshadowed at his influence in the match with his role in navigating through those tenuous moments. His save from Liam Ridgewell’s header proved the most important, but his continued alertness prevented the Timbers from securing that desperately desired foothold.

Sporting eventually pushed out a bit as the first half progressed, but the Timbers looked the more likely team to score. Darlington Nagbe created opportunities with his movement and his willingness to challenge defenders, while the Timbers posed a constant threat from Valeri’s procession of set pieces.

Timbers defender Nat Borchers twisted his header just wide of the far post on the half-hour as the home side continued to push. Melia charged off his line to block the otherwise quiet Fanendo Adi shortly before halftime as Sporting managed to enter the interval on level terms.

The respite paved the way for more menace after the break. Nemeth maneuvered along the end line and presented Dom Dwyer with a decent chance, but Dwyer skimmed the near post after a heavy first touch. Dwyer soon dragged just wide with a shot from the edge of the penalty area.

Portland responded promptly to grasp control once more. Melia produced another fine block just before the hour after Valeri prompted a Nagbe effort with a cleverly taken set piece. The remnants of that play ultimately laid the foundation for the opening goal seconds later.

Sheer persistence kept the second ball alive as Sporting tried and failed to hack clear. Valeri eventually punished Sporting by corralling the ball and funneling it into Wallace’s run. Wallace managed to poke inside the far post to deliver the long awaited breakthrough after 57 minutes.

Both teams labored for the next 20 minutes or so and permitted the match to devolve into a series of flashpoints. Wallace forced a lengthy stoppage by leaving his boot into a challenge and hitting Melia in the face. Melia eventually departed with a head injury with backup goalkeeper Kempin inserted in his stead. Nemeth somehow escaped with only a yellow after hitting the prone Lucas Melano in the head with a ball as the tension between the two teams boiled over.

Portland entrenched in the final half hour and permitted Sporting to advance further up the field. Those conservative measures — including the introduction of holding midfielder George Fochive for winger Wallace — eventually cost the Timbers dearly in the waning moments.

Zusi corralled the ball on the right wing and surveyed his options. He decided to whip a ball toward the near post. Ellis spotted to cross and surged toward the ball. He jumped as the static Liam Ridgewell reacted too late and nodded home inside the far post to send the match into extra time.

Nemeth eventually separated the teams for good with a stunning winner. The in-form winger covered less distance than he did for his knifing solo goal, but he proved just as precise as he sliced inside from the endline. His cut opened just enough space to fire inside the far post seven minutes into extra time.

Portland huffed and puffed until a pair of substitutes conjured an equalizer from a throw-in deep in the corner. Alvas Powell located Dairon Asprilla just inside the penalty area. Asprilla held up the ball well and turned deftly to cross toward the top of the goal area. Urruti reacted as the Sporting defenders stood still and rounded off the move to send the match to penalty kicks.

Back and forth the two teams went after players missed and both goalkeepers summoned necessary saves as the initial set of five kicks ended 3-3. Sporting squandered two chances to win the match in sudden death with Abdul-Salaam cruelly hitting both posts in the ninth round. It paved the way for a staggering conclusion from the goalkeepers in the 11th round as Kwarasey rasped home his spot kick and then stopped Kempin’s effort to send the Timbers through to host Vancouver on Sunday.