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Recap: Atlanta United FC Finds Eleventh-Hour Answer for Sporting Kansas City

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After Sporting Kansas City deftly managed a one-goal lead for much of the second half, a familiar face forced an honors-even result for the visiting Atlanta United FC.

MLS: Atlanta United FC at Sporting KC
Despite Latif Blessing’s frenetic exertions across the Sporting Kansas City attack all game long, the home side emerged from the contest with only a point.
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Jacob Peterson became known among the Sporting Kansas City fanbase during his five-year stint in blue as The Answer, and he even graced the pages of The Blue Testament last year in the form of satirical book reports, but it was his academic finish during second-half stoppage time that took two points from SKC and handed one of those points right back to the visiting Atlanta United FC outfit.

Sporting KC came out with a starting XI that contained a few surprises, perhaps due to the impending midweek US Open Cup semifinal against the San Jose Earthquakes. The most newsworthy change was the insertion of newcomer Cristian Lobato into the lineup in place of Benny Feilhaber, who began the game on the bench. Graham Zusi likewise was dropped, in this case for Saad Abdul-Salaam, as he had played midweek in the All-Star Game against Real Madrid. Finally, Diego Rubio was replaced up top by Latif Blessing as Rubio continues to stretch into full Sporting fitness in his comeback from knee surgery to repair a torn ACL suffered during the home stretch of the 2016 campaign.

Atlanta, for their part, was without their regular left back, USMNT player Greg Garza, after he suffered a separated shoulder early on in the All-Star Game, thus continuing the unfortunate MLS tradition of playerse being injured in a glorified friendly seriously enough to have to miss games with their actual team afterwards.

The first half was largely a stalemate between two able teams as Atlanta admirably came into Children’s Mercy Park intent not on bunkering down and parking the bus, but on pressing high and taking the flow of the game straight to the heart of the SKC defense. The intensity of proceedings was encapsulated in a pair of vicious tackles by Atlanta that resulted in yellow cards being issued to Jeff Larentowicz and Carlos Carmona, while Ike Opara was booked for dissent after being whistled for a foul right outside the SKC box. Carmona in particular was lucky to remain in play after a similarly reckless foul on Latif Blessing that could easily have resulted in a second yellow, and an automatic red, from center refree Chris Penso.

The intensity, however, produced no goals despite a series of long-range attempts from both sides as shooting chances within either penalty box were hard to come by on either end of the pitch. Only one shot on goal—belonging to SKC—came within the first 45 minutes of proceedings. Indeed, the most interesting play may well have been the mulligan that Sporting keeper Tim Melia received when he sent a goal kick across the endline (not the sideline), and, because goal kicks must leave the penalty area into play, the newly-minted dad received a mulligan.

The second half began with one substitution from Peter Vermes, as Feilhaber came on for Lobato in central midfield, and the brutal nature of the match continued in earnest, as both sides traded fouls back-and-forth in dangerous areas, with one of Atlanta’s free kicks forcing Tim Melia into his first save of the match, and with SKC’s coming off Atlanta’s third yellow card of the game, this one to Yamil Asad.

The best chance of the game came for Sporting Kansas City in the 57th minute when Blessing drew a foul on Leandro Gonzalez Pirez just inside the Atlanta penalty area, and Penso pointed immediately to the spot. Benny Feilhaber promptly stepped up, used his keeper-dependent approach to send USMNT keeper (and thumb lookalike, according to the Cauldron) Brad Guzan the wrong way, and put the boys in blue one goal to the good.

Making a 25-minute or so cameo appearance on his return to Children’s Mercy Park was former SKC winger Jacob Peterson, who received a loud ovation from the assembled crowd upon his entry. Shortly afterward, Diego Rubio entered as well for SKC, replacing Daniel Salloi and moving Latif Blessing out onto the wing from striker, where he would continue to pester the Atlanta defense, including creating another one-on-one chance against Guzan amid a bit of penalty box chaos and inducing another yellow card from yet another Five Stripes defender, this time fullback Mikey Ambrose.

Sporting KC’s third and final substitution came in the 82nd minute, as Jimmy Medranda entered as a more defensive-oriented substitute for Gerso Fernandes immediately after the latter had latched onto a through pass from Roger Espinoza for a one-on-one versus Guzan, but with the shot skittering wide of the mark. Medranda himself had a strike just a couple of minutes after entering, but his shot, like Gerso’s flew wide of the same goalpost.

The pileup of near-misses from Sporting KC would prove consequential as, in second-half stoppage time, the subbed-on Peterson scored for his new side against his old in a well-taken side-footed shot that he sent past an oncoming Tim Melia. Thoughtfully declining to celebrate, his new teammates nonethless mobbed him jubilantly, as it ultimately meant that a crucial point was gained for the visitors, while SKC for not the first time this year saw the prospect of three points slip through its collective grasp after a late defensive lapse.

Sporting Kansas City returns to league play on Saturday against the Seattle Sounders after a midweek US Open Cup fixture against the San Jose Earthquakes.