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Recap: Sporting KC's Russell to the rescue in the rain

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Johnny Russell salvages a point for Sporting Kansas City to officially clinch a playoff spot, but two points are left on the table after a highly questionable penalty call.

MLS: Los Angeles Galaxy at Sporting KC
The Johnny Russell-versus-Ashley Cole battle eventually resulted in a goal for Russell and a point for Sporting Kansas City.
Peter G. Aiken

Sporting Kansas City went into tonight’s fixture against the Los Angeles Galaxy needing at least a draw to both clinch its spot in the playoffs and remain in position for a first-round playoff bye. This they did in breaking even with the Galaxy in a 1-1 match marred by a highly controversial, game-altering penalty kick call in the Galaxy’s favor.

Sporting KC’s manager Peter Vermes went with a fairly standard-issue starting XI and gameday 18 ahead of the international break against a star-studded LA Galaxy lineup that has nonetheless still managed to find itself two points out of playoff contention in early October despite coming in off of back-to-back wins under Dom Kinnear.

A cagey, even opening to the game saw no real scoring chances for either side for the first fourteen minutes until Ike Opara flicked a corner kick to the feet of Diego Rubio, who tried to chip a shot backwards over his head but sent it just over David Bingham’s goal.

Several minutes later, Romain Alessandrini cleaved apart the right side of the SKC defense to send a bouncing cross into the Sporting KC penalty area towards Ola Kamara, who went to ground. Center referee Jair Marrufo promptly blew his whistle and pointed to the spot for a penalty kick, but then controversially declined to check the call via VAR, despite replays from multiple angles that strongly suggested that neither Tim Melia or Matt Besler had made contact with Kamara. Zlatan Ibrahimovic subsequently sent Melia the wrong way and coolly buried his spot kick in the opposite corner to give the Galaxy an ill-gotten 1-0 lead. In his post-game press conference, Vermes went off, saying in part, “First of all, terrible decision, 100% terrible decision...absolutely unacceptable performance...by the league and PRO, and they should do something about it.”

Sporting Kansas City responded to their misfortune well, and minutes later Daniel Salloi began a flurry of SKC chances when he forced Bingham into a diving, one-handed save on a well-placed shot from just outside the penalty area. Johnny Russell then had a go having pulled the Galaxy keeper out of position, but his shot was deflected away for a corner kick. Seth Sinovic then had another shot on goal that Bingham once again saved at the expense of another corner kick, and Bingham was forced into yet another diving, one-handed save in order to prevent an own goal.

The Galaxy ended the first half on the front foot, with their captain Ashley Cole capitalizing on Graham Zusi’s errant attempted header back to Melia by trying to chip Melia. Melia produced a fantastic backward-diving save to concede the corner. On the corner, Melia made a reflex diving save but sent the rebound straight to an offside Daniel Steres, who tapped the ball home for a temporary 2-0 Galaxy lead. This time, Marrufo went to VAR and correctly reversed the goal in favor of calling Steres offside.

The second half began with the fireworks of a fracas, as Diego Rubio was scythed down with no whistle from Marrufo, and Sporting KC players acted out their frustration, with Ilie Sanchez, Russell, and Salloi all receiving yellow cards from Marrufo, who stood a significant risk of losing complete control of the game. Vermes seemed to note this in the post-game presser, saying, “Thank goodness that no player got injured tonight.”

SKC regained its composure and continued its attack, with Rubio coming exceptionally close in back-to-back chances fifteen minutes into the half, with a looping header being pushed onto the woodwork by Bingham, and a right-footed attempt being lashed just wide of the near post.

At the sixty-fifth minute, Vermes went to his bench for the first time, with Gerso Fernandes coming in for Salloi on the left wing. Gerso had his first attempt on goal five minutes later, a curling attempt on his weaker right foot that Bingham easily handled.

Another foul on Rubio just outside the Galaxy penalty area was called by Marrufo, and Zusi put the subsequent direct free kick on frame, but without much pace on the shot, it was a relatively easy diving save for Bingham. Just seconds later, Bingham was forced into a much more demanding double save on shots from Rubio and Russell.

At long last, though, the Wall of Bingham caved after over eighty minutes of stoutness when Russell slalomed his way through the left side of the Galaxy defense, sliding past Jonathan Dos Santos, Kamara, Alessandrini, and Cole before lasering a shot past Bingham and into the far corner of the Galaxy goal to bring proceedings back to honors even.

Vermes responded immediately, substituting Yohan Croizet on to play left back in place of Sinovic, but it was the other SKC fullback, Zusi, who had the next best chance to score, skipping a left-footed shot past Bingham, but onto the far post and back into play.

SKC had one final chance at goal in second half stoppage time when Bingham made a mistake and was beaten to an aerial ball near the edge of his penalty area by Diego Rubio. Rubio’s header ended up being cleared off the line by the Galaxy defense, though, as Rubio nursed a blow to the head from the late-arriving Bingham. Soon after, Marrufo whistled for full-time in what has to feel like two points dropped for Sporting Kansas City and its fans. As Vermes pointed out, “They would have won the game one-nil. You don’t call a penalty—that’s not a penalty—then we’re all fine.”

Sporting Kansas City soccer picks up again after the international break on the road at BC Place against the Vancouver Whitecaps at 9:00 pm Central Time on Wednesday, October 17. With third-place LAFC having taken all three points tonight against the Colorado Rapids and cutting out the gap from second to third place, getting points on the road against the Whitecaps will be an imperative for Sporting KC.

My thanks to my TBT colleague Aly Trost for the press conference quotes from Peter Vermes.