An established star out, a rising star enters.
Sporting Kansas City’s Ghanian Latif Blessing stepped in for leading scorer Dom Dwyer and shined brightly, bagging two goals to lead Sporting Kansas City to a 2-2 draw at Orlando City Saturday evening. Blessing’s goals framed the scoring and enabled Sporting KC to be the first team to take points from the hosts in the 2017 season.
Both sides were looking to rebound from away losses a weekend ago and to stay near the top of their respective conferences. Sporting’s mission was hindered by the absence of Dwyer, who was suspended for the match after earning his fifth yellow-card of the season last week, while Orlando City’s was boosted by the re-entry of defender Jonathan Spector into the lineup as they looked to continue their domestic dominance after beginning the season undefeated at their new Orlando City SC Stadium.
Sporting’s Blessing – whose country’s flag features the black star of Africa - gained his first MLS start in place of Dwyer, and Ike Opara, Graham Zusi, and Jimmy Medranda returned to the Starting 11 after being rested last week in the 2-0 loss at Minnesota.
And it was the 20-year-old Blessing who created havoc drawing two free kicks early before cleaning up a scrum in the box by poking the loose ball past Orlando City goalkeeper Joe Bendick in the 9th minute. The play began with a penetrating ball for right winger Gerso Fernandes from midfielder Ilie Sanchez. Gerso turned to his left, took a telling inside touch, and crossed for rushing center back Matt Besler who collided with Orlando defenders before hitting the ground. The opportune Blessing was there for his first MLS goal.
But Sporting’s lead was short-lived as Orlando created numbers in the attack and open space in the usually cohesive MLS-best Kansas City defense. Free just outside the upper left corner of Sporting’s box, Orlando playmaker Carlos Rivas drove a pristine in-swinging ball for high-scoring Canadian center forward Cyle Larin in the 16th minute. Larin beat Besler to the cross, leapt, and raised his right foot to place the ball to the left past Sporting KC goalkeeper Tim Melia for his 7th goal of the season.
As the teams traded chances and the play became more physical, each side looked to gain the momentum. A moment of refined skill from former FIFA World Player of the Year Kaka gave Orlando City the lead in the 26th minute. With two defenders near him, the 35-year-old Brazilian took a looping cross from the right off his chest and swerved a low bending ball off Melia’s left post with his right foot from eight yards out, sending the already voracious home crowd into delirium. The goal was Kaka’s third in four games after his return from injury.
Sporting continued to threaten, however, as Gerso beat a man 19 yards on the right and curved a left- footed shot into a right-diving Bendick who punched the ball away in the 32nd minute. Then right back Graham Zusi sent in a blistering low ball from the right that three Sporting players failed to connect on in the 43rd minute.
After the break, play continued to open with both teams probing and creating half-chances while finding space. In the middle of the half, play slowed as Orlando maintained their one-goal lead, even though Sporting Kansas City had most of the ball. But Orlando’s difference makers would threaten again in the 71st minute as Larin was put in on a through ball. Melia sprinted off his line and saved Larin’s shot in the center of the box.
It was a critical save as Kansas City would level two-minutes later as Blessing struck again. Gerso - a constant threat to Orlando - received from Zusi, pushed the ball quickly past defender Donny Toia, and played for Benny Feilhaber. Feilhaber’s shot from the right was blocked by the Orlando defense but came to Blessing who calmly finished from the middle of the 6-yard box into the right-middle of the goal.
After an Orlando City goal was waived off only two minutes later due to a push by Larin, the match was in its final 15 minutes, hopefully driving for a satisfying conclusion. Yet it wasn’t until the 90th minute that drama unfolded as Gerso cut in from the right to his powerful left foot to test a leaping Bendick who batted the fierce drive to his right over the crossbar.
Five minutes of stoppage time came and went, and the match ended with one point for each side. It was the first draw to go with five victories for Orlando at home.
Sporting Kansas City (5-2-4 , 19 points, tied atop the West) will be right back at work as they host conference foes Seattle Sounders Wednesday evening at home for their 5th game in 18 days.