Reversing their fortunes in many ways, Sporting Kansas City jumped to a two-goal lead, only to see the Fire answer with three in a row, before re-taking command in a 4-3 victory at Chicago Saturday evening. Felipe Gutierrez’s brace, goals by Johnny Russell and Jimmy Medranda, and two assists by Daniel Salloi paced the visitors.
Sporting Kansas City came into Saturday’s match at Chicago Fire looking to erase any lingering thoughts of its underwhelming 2-0 season and home-opener loss to NYCFC last Sunday. The scheduling gods were not kind to them, however, as they hold an all-time 4-18-2 at Chicago and have dropped each of their last three contests there by one-goal.
Sporting KC entered Toyota Park with a clean-bill of health and were facing a Fire squad with eight players on its injury report and playing their first match of the MLS season. The Fire features 2017 MLS Golden Boot Winner Nemanja Nikolic who was especially lethal at home last season, bagging 19 of his 24 goals in only 17 home matches, along with German World Cup winner Bastian Schweinsteiger in the midfield who is deputized by long-time MLS stalwart Dax McCarty.
After last week’s loss, Manager Peter Vermes made three lineup changes to his 4-3-3, inserting last week’s top-performing sub, winger Daniel Salloi; striker Khiry Shelton, kept out last week due to a leg contusion; and veteran left back Seth Sinovic for Yohan Croizet, Diego Rubio, and Cristian Lobato respectively. The Fire came out in a 4-2-3-1 with newly-acquired Tony Tchani pairing with McCarty at defensive midfield and new, highly-touted Serbian playmaker Aleksandar Katai on the left wing.
The visitors, dressed in the all-black secondary kits, played party-crashers in the 9th minute. Center back Matt Besler drove a cross-field switch to right back Graham Zusi just wide and high of Chicago’s box. Zusi bolted inside and played right winger Johnny Russell whose run split two defenders in front of Zusi. Fire goalkeeper Richard Sanchez made big to save the Scots attempt, but Sporting’s Felipe Gutierrez headed the rebound into the top middle of the net from the penalty spot to give Kansas City an early lead. It was the Chilean’s first MLS goal since being signed as a designated player in the offseason from La Liga side Real Betis.
Moving the ball adeptly, Sporting Kansas City continued to have more of the play, resulting in 7-1 margin in shots by the 23rd minute, with three on goal to Chicago’s none. A more organized press by the frontline and midfield than against NYCFC and an alert back four complemented Sporting’s purposeful possession.
Chicago came close to a leveler in the 34th minute as Katai played a ball diagonally across Kansas City’s box from the left that scooted just out of reach of Nikolic on the back doorstep of Tim Melia’s goal, though he appeared to be offside.
Sporting Kansas City continued to push the pace of the match, and they doubled their joy in the 44th minute. Midfielder Roger Espinoza won the ball just inside central midfield and quickly played Salloi in on the left of the Fire’s box. The 21-year-old homegrown penetrated, beat his man, and slotted the ball back for Russell at the spot. The Derby County veteran calmly left-footed the ball into the middle of the net in front of three Chicago defenders for his first as a Sporting player.
The first half would end with that two-goal lead and an 4-0 lead in shots on goal for Sporting Kansas City.
Some poor clearances by Kansas City led to a Chicago threat in the 51st minute as the active Katai latched onto the ball six yards from the left end line, cut inside to beat Espinoza, and lofted a far-post ball for Luis Solignac who headed the ball past the back goal-support on Melia’s left.
Winger Gerso Fernandes entered for Vermes’ men in the 55th minute for Shelton, adding speed off the bench for Sporting Kansas City.
Chicago continued to keep the ball in Sporting’s end; however, they created no significant attempts on goal until the 62nd minute when Solignac’s cross from deep right in Kansas City’s box was knocked backwards by Besler. The deflection forced a dropped Melia to get a hand to the ball, sending it towards Nikolic who got a touch that trickled to Zusi who cleared the ball off the goal line, the ball eventually being cleared by Sporting KC’s Ike Opara.
Jimmy Medranda entered the match in the 69th minute for Sinovic who was roughed up in a slight scrum in Kansas City’s box.
In less than a minute, Chicago would pull within one. Corralling another poor Kansas City clearance, Schweinsteiger beat Fernandes, nutmegged Medranda at the top right of Sporting’s box, and chipped for a near-post Katai who beat Opara and headed downward inside Melia and his left post.
Now the match took on a helter-skelter feel after Melia was forced to push away an attempt at his near-post. On the counter, Medranda settled and played a long ball for a left-channel streaking Fernandes. The Guinea-Bissau native’s ball for a central Salloi was well-denied and cleared out by sliding Fire back Christian Dean.
Sporting and Medranda would fall victim again in the 74th minute off a Chicago corner. Medranda misplayed the cross, allowing McCarty to nod the ball for a diving Melia save, the rebound of which Nikolic beat two defenders to punch it inside the far post over the downed Melia.
But more frenzy was to come as stylish play gave way to urgency.
A cross-pitch flighted ball found the Fire’s Brandon Vincent deep inside left of Kansas City’s six-yard box in minute eighty-one. The 23-year-old’s first-time volleyed cross found Nikolic running down main street for an easy touch home to Melia’s right from six yards for his second of the contest. Chicago had reeled off three unanswered goals, all from some sort of cross against 2017’s MLS best defense for a stunning 3-2 lead. Kansas City’s struggles in Chicago were now all too real.
Yet Kansas City refused to lie down. Within two minutes, the match was back level. Espinoza curled a left-footed ball for a penetrating run by Fernandes to the left of Chicago netminder Sanchez who came out to punch the ball away only to see Medranda drill a return shot over him into the far-right netting, gaining back some glory for the twice-victim Medranda.
Former Sporting Kansas City back Kevin Ellis, signed just yesterday by Chicago after being released by the visitors, entered the match in the 85th minute for Katai. But the questions were… Who would falter now? Who would rise?
Taking the ball 10 yards inside his own half one minute on, Russell steamed determined down the Chicago right flank splitting two defenders 30 yards out before dishing off to Salloi near the penalty spot. His backheel was dummied by Fernandes for Gutierrez who made no mistake from 12 yards to give Sporting Kansas City the lead again, 4-3, with his second goal of the match.
Five minutes of stoppage time were given as Sporting Kansas City efforted to hold on to a win that would surely galvanize a squad trying to gel with new faces and facing a disappointing first week. Smartly, Vermes’ men stepped on the ball to slow down the pace and saw out the wild victory, but not before a dangerous central Chicago free kick 25 yards out that hit the Kansas City wall ended the match.
Sporting Kansas City will host San Jose Earthquakes next Saturday night, while the Chicago Fire will journey to Minnesota United FC the same day.