Sporting KC fell to Inter Miami by a goal. This controversial play was the difference

In a theme that’s become all too familiar on the road, Sporting KC saw an early lead disappear by halftime, eventually losing 3-2 to a Lionel Messi-less Inter Miami team.

It was a difficult — and somewhat controversial — result that could end up hurting Sporting’s MLS postseason chances.

“I think we could have been more patient with the ball,” Sporting’s Daniel Salloi said. “I think we got lost in (the game). We didn’t have enough intensity.”

Sporting got on the board first. Felipe Gutierrez took a powerful shot that Miami goalkeeper Drake Callender couldn’t hold on to. Salloi followed up the shot and put the rebound into the net.

Then things started to go south.

It wasn’t immediate, but Sporting’s grip on the match slowly waned after the 15-minute mark. Miami had no problem playing through the midfield and started to create chances before finally making good on one of them.

In the 25th minute, a lofted pass over the top of the Sporting back line put Miami’s Leonardo Campana in on goal. Sporting goalkeeper Tim Melia tried to beat him to the ball, but he took out Campana for a penalty.

Campana calmly converted from the penalty spot.

Just before halftime, Campana put in his second goal on a header from inside the penalty area, thanks to a cross from DeAndre Yedlin.

“The penalty, it’s something that we could have controlled,” Sporting manager Peter Vermes said.

Sporting made a change at the half but still looked flat-footed for the ensuing 15 minutes. Then, a lack of focus reared its head — in a somewhat embarrassing fashion.

Andreu Fontas gained possession in the attacking third of the field, but the ball came up off his foot and appeared to be deflected, possibly off his hand or even his backside. The play was deemed to be a handball by referee Ismail Elfath.

Both Fontas and Vermes were adamant the ball never touched Fontas’ hand.

Given how the ball popped up off Fontas’ foot and the positioning of his arms, the rulebook would seem to suggest the play might not be a handball, even if the ball glanced off his hand.

However, answering questions from a pool reporter after the match, Elfath said he felt Fontas’ hand was “away from the body in an unnatural position as a barrier” — which would justify a handball call.

That wasn’t the end of the issue, though.

After the play was whistled dead, Fontas picked up the ball and pleaded his case to Elfath. Mid-discussion, Miami’s Sergio Busquets took the ball from Fontas’ hands, placed it down and quickly passed to a wide-open Facundo Farias, who dribbled from the halfway line into the penalty box and scored for a 3-1 lead.

“The referee is talking to him,” Vermes said. “And for him to allow them to play fast when he is talking to our guy ... in that situation he should have called that back. That’s the one that bothers me.”

Elfath maintained, through the pool report, he didn’t converse with Fontas.

“The KC player initiated and approached the referee for a talk,” Elfath said. “The referee did not engage in a conversation and did not point to the whistle for a ceremonial restart.”

Vermes acknowledged that Sporting could’ve been smarter in the moment to prevent the play from unfolding as it did.

“We could keep that ball and get a yellow,” Vermes said. “There’s a lot of different things that we could do in that.”

Sporting pulled within a goal (3-2) in the 77th minute, as Alan Pulido scored his 13th goal of the season following a give-and-go with Erik Thommy. But there wasn’t enough time to tie the score.

Sporting fell to 8-12-8, with 32 points on the season. They sit in 11th place and are no closer to the playoff line.

Sporting returns to action next weekend when they travel to take on Minnesota United in a pivotal match in their playoff push.