Sporting KC ends St. Louis City’s dream first season in classic MLS style

Nov 5, 2023; Kansas City, KS, USA; St. Louis City SC midfielder Jared Stroud (8) battles Sporting Kansas City defender Logan Ndenbe (18) for the ball in the first half of game two in a round one match of the 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs at Children’s Mercy Park. Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports (USA Today Sports / reuters)

St. Louis City SC spent its first seven months in Major League Soccer on top of the Western Conference and on top of the world. It roared into existence as an expansion team with sellout crowds and raucous wins. It shattered every last expectation, and savored an inaugural season that felt like a dream.

Then it learned the hard way that MLS is where regular-season success goes to die.

It clinched the conference with weeks to spare. Then it entered the playoffs and promptly crashed out, beaten twice on consecutive Sundays by its chief rival, Sporting Kansas City.

Sporting KC, on the other hand, opened the 2023 season without a win for more than two months. Some fans wanted longtime coach Peter Vermes fired. SKC languished in the Western Conference basement, with three goals in its first 10 games. Elsewhere around the soccer world, it would have been fearing relegation.

But MLS, of course, welcomes more than half its teams to the playoffs. A new format, more bloated than ever before, offered hope. It eventually admitted a Kansas City team with fewer wins than losses — and, meanwhile, essentially invalidated seven months of St. Louis success.

That’s what these playoffs, the pinnacle of sporting randomness, tend to do. Between 2012 and 2021, only one conference champ even reached MLS Cup. The two top seeds, on average, won just over one postseason game per year.

St. Louis, in 2023, won zero.

It got a three-game series, and therefore a second chance after Sporting KC’s 4-1 upset at CityPark last Sunday. But it couldn’t take that chance. Randomness reigned. Logan Ndenbe, a 23-year-old left back, snuck into the penalty box and slotted home a tidy opener to give SKC the lead.

Ndenbe had entered the 2023 playoffs without a professional goal. He’d played 48 games for SKC, and dozens more in Belgium and France. As far as unlikely heroes go, he was the unlikeliest.

But this is MLS, so of course Ndenbe opened the scoring in Game 1 against St. Louis. And of course he repeated the feat in Game 2.

Daniel Salloi doubled Kansas City’s lead midway through the second half. St. Louis responded, as most top seeds would, and pulled a goal back — but not two. So much of what had fueled its record-breaking inaugural season seemed to evaporate. Whereas goalkeeper Roman Burki was the one standing on his metaphorical head for much of the regular season, SKC’s Tim Melia stole Sunday’s show.

So it is Kansas City, the winner of a penalty shootout in a wild-card play-in game, who will advance to the quarterfinals. It is St. Louis whose unforgettable season will end abruptly, without a playoff win.

None of that annuls what St. Louis has built, or what its fans felt for eight months.

But all of it reinforces the relative irrelevance of the season’s early months. Because this, as league originals like SKC know, is not an anomaly; for even the very best MLS teams, its a classic, anticlimactic conclusion.


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