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Rapid Response: SKC survives early Rapid waves and Howard heroics

Gutierrez and Rubio tally to overcome continued defensive woes

MLS: Sporting KC at Colorado Rapids Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

In a match typical of their dramatic up-and-down season thus far, Sporting Kansas City gained a point after falling back two to the Colorado Rapids at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City. Two Chileans in midfielder magician Felipe Gutierrez and struggling forward Diego Rubio tallied for the visitors as they went to 2-1-1 on the young MLS season.

Sporting Kansas City came in on a two-game-winning streak, having scored seven goals in those two wins. However, the visitors have fallen each of the last four times at Colorado, and they would be without their early-season assist leader in winger Daniel Salloi (3 assists), who was called into the Hungarian U-21 team for UEFA European Championship qualifying. Midfielder Roger Espinoza and winger Johnny Russell – two assists each – and Gutierrez – three goals – round out the hottest Sporting KC attackers.

The Rapids, playing in their 2017 home opener, lost 2-1 at New England Revolution on March 10 in their only MLS league match thus far after losing 2-0 on aggregate to Toronto FC in the Round of 16 in CONCACAF Champions League play.

Each side came in with a clean bill of health. Sporting KC’s starting eleven – in it’s typical 4-3-3 formation – was altered from last week only by the insertion of Frenchman Yohan Croizet on the right wing, who started the first match but came off the bench in the last two. The switch also shifted Johnny Russell to the left. The Rapids starting eleven, like Kansas City’s, is full of players acclimating to MLS after offseason acquisitions, and their 3-5-2 was altered by the introduction of Englishman Joe Mason at forward for Jack McBean from their first match.

The attacks came early and often beginning with a 3rd minute chance for the visitors after the visitor’s first corner kick had been cleared centrally to Gutierrez 25 yards out. His cultured chip over the evacuating defense found Croizet alone after running through the middle of the box. Looking to make a statement for more time, the winger tried to wallop the ball instead of redirecting it and whiffed on the opportunity.

Soon Sporting KC would be down two as Colorado struck twice in four minutes time. In the 5th minute, US International midfielder Edgar Castillo broke alone into open space on the left wing and served for a central running Dominique Badji who slipped behind center back Ike Opara for an easy finish at the six-yard box. Three minutes later, a backwards ball drew the Sporting KC midfield out for a ball over the top by back Tommy Smith. Mason’s hooked run, kept on by Opara, got him behind the defense where he was caught by center back Matt Besler and met by Sporting goalkeeper Tim Melia. However, Mason spun away from both for a trickling finish off Melia’s arm and into the open net from seven yards.

The quick 2-0 deficit left Sporting Kansas City fans wondering when the stoutest defense in MLS last season – only 29 goals allowed in 34 games – would come back from vacation. The lack of strong team defense for 2018 now shocked at a rate of nine goals leaked in less than four matches. One has to go back to August of 2015 for the last time Sporting Kansas City allowed 2+ goals in four straight matches.

Colorado continued to be patient on the ball deep into the half as they efforted to pull the Sporting KC defense out for more long balls out of the back, continuing their first match trend in which they played an extraordinary 98 long balls in the loss to New England. However, Sporting held the first half advantage in possession 61% to 39%.

Sporting KC worked back into the flow of the match in the last ten minutes of the half, a period culminating in a last minute foray by Croizet as he received from center forward Khiry Shelton just right of middle 16 yards out, beat his man with a move to the right, only to be met by former US International goalkeeper Tim Howard who made big for the right-footed save. Shelton’s low follow shot was similarly saved by Howard before he fell on the ball.

Desperately needing a goal to get back into the match, Sporting KC Manager Peter Vermes pulled left back Seth Sinovic in favor of the more attack-minded Jimmy Medranda for the second half. From that flank a chance would come in the 48th minute. Shelton played an entry “give” to Russell at the top of the box and ran onto his slick “go” ball at the penalty spot only to be denied again by Howard’s foot.

Sporting’s folly nearly reared its ugly head again in the 54th minute off a Colorado free-kick from the left when Besler deflected the ball from the near post to the back post where Badji rose and just missed nodding the ball into the net while nearly colliding with the post.

Yet another trend – Sporting’s enterprising attack – got them back into the match three minutes later. Midfielder Roger Espinoza’s cross-field flighted ball to the far-left edge of Colorado’s six-yard box was met by a rising Croizet past two defenders. The frustrated winger nodded the ball down only to hit near post. However, as Shelton screened the defense, Gutierrez’s central follow saw his low left-footed shot beat Howard to his left from eight yards. It was the Chilean’s team-leading fourth goal of the young season.

The speedy Gerso Fernandes entered for a fatigued and cramping Croizet, Sporting’s brightest attacker on the night, to push the match further in the 61st minute.

Gutierrez flicked on his “wow” switch in the 75th as he took a low-flighted ball from Medranda and flicked it across his defender and half-volleyed a point-blank shot knocked away by Howard. The long-time US and English Premier stalwart netminder was on tonight.

Opportunity knocked again for Sporting KC six minutes later. And the chance fell to the red-hot Gutierrez. Off a corner from right back Graham Zusi, Gutierrez met the flighted ball five-yards out with his defender behind him. But the ball hit him in the knee and he was unable to get a strong foot on it before it hit Howard.

Forward Diego Rubio was sent on for Russell in the 88th minute, and Zusi was pushed up to make four on the front line.

In one minute, Colorado nearly made all the drama null and void as Jack Price’s free-kick from 16-yards out banged off the Sporting KC crossbar. The visitors were not washed under by the Rapids yet.

Five minutes of stoppage time began with a clever entry ball from Gutierrez to Fernandes on the left corner of the Rapids’ box. His flick to a central Shelton was backheeled to an approaching Rubio who then finished under Howard from seven yards to finally tie the match and send the visiting Sporting KC Roaddron supporters into a frenzy. The goal was Rubio’s first on the season after starting the first match and falling out of selection.

Sporting Kansas City had salvaged a point despite conceding two more, but continued their offensive prowess. A valuable point and some more valuable lessons to be taken.

Next week, Sporting Kansas City will host DC United at 7:30pm CT Saturday at Children’s Mercy Park, while Colorado Rapids will host Philadelphia Union at 7:00pm MT Saturday.