Western Conference kingpins Sporting Kansas City (7-2-2) traveled to Atlanta United FC’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the first time ever Wednesday night to battle the Eastern Conference kingpin and Supporter’s Shield leaders (7-2-1) in Sporting’s first midweek match of the season. Yet by the end of the intense match, a bold and united Kansas City side would be the Supporter’s Shield leaders. Striker Khiry Shelton drew a red card on Atlanta goalkeeper Brad Guzan, Daniel Salloi struck wonderfully, and goalkeeper Tim Melia would be Tim Melia to win the night before Gerso’s late tally.
Both sides were playing their second game in five days, but Sporting’s task was formidable, facing the highest-powered attack in MLS over the last two seasons in the Five Stripes. However, Sporting has been an attacking juggernaut themselves this season, currently trailing Atlanta United FC by only two goals scored in one more match played. Similarly, each side came in on a hot streak with Kansas City rebounding after their stretch of seven games without a loss was snapped two weeks ago with a 1-0 win over Colorado Rapids Saturday, while Atlanta was riding an eight-match unbeaten streak.
Manager Peter Vermes made one personnel change to his lineup for Saturday with Frenchman Yohan Croizet returning to attacking midfield, putting Cristian Lobato to the bench and Jimmy Medranda to left back as his side – 2-1-1 on the road thus far in 2018 – looked to tame Atlanta United FC’s home form – 9-1-3, 44GF 13GA over their last 13. Atlanta Manager “Tata” Martino’s lineup hinted at diversion from their usual three at the back as former Sporting KC back Sal Zizzo was inserted into the lineup along with forward Hector Villaba in place of back Franco Escobar and midfielder Julian Gressel to form a 4-2-3-1.
Sporting KC attacked Atlanta’s right-side defense early twice through Croizet and winger Daniel Salloi, but on their first attack in the second minute, Atlanta countered with a quick ball down the left wing where Paraguayan Miguel Almiron looped a far post cross for Venezuelan Josef Martinez whose off-balance attempt went well wide right of Kansas City goalkeeper Tim Melia’s goal.
Four minutes later, Argentine Ezequiel Barco dribbled from left to right across the top of Kansas City’s and played wide. The pass was deflected by Medranda to an offside Martinez while Sporting center back Ike Opara tried to recover. With space and time, MLS’s leading scorer turned, cut to his left and deposited the ball into the left corner of the net. However, video review was called for by referee Mark Geiger and the goal was disallowed.
Opara was soon called on again. The reigning MLS Defender of the Year cleared out a pass that had penetrated Sporting’s six-yard box in the 12th minute, and the subsequent corner saw Leandro Gonzalez Pirez rise over right back Graham Zusi to nod the ball into the turf bound for the left corner of goal. Yet Melia, MLS’s reigning Goalkeeper of the Year, got his hands down to extinguish the chance. As Kansas City struggled to keep possession, Atlanta kept the visitors penned in and had forced three saves and taken four corners by the 15th minute.
Vermes’ charges had survived the onslaught and sought to slow the pace and gain control through possession. Yet the attacking speed of the Five Stripes on the turf was an unrelenting threat as they endeavored to please the boisterous 40,000+ in attendance.
A turning point came in the 34th minute as Sporting began to form a smattering of chances. Atlanta netminder Brad Guzan earned a red card ejection as he heftily took down Sporting KC Khiry Shelton at the top-right of his box to deny a clear goal-scoring chance off a through ball from Croizet that released the 24-year-old in alone. Martino instantly inserted Paul Christensen, Atlanta’s fourth-string goalkeeper making his MLS debut, for Villaba as the hosts were forced down to ten men. The subsequent free-kick by Zusi swerved just wide of the left post.
Having persisted and turned the tide, Sporting Kansas City moved in on Atlanta’s box moving the ball and getting off several crosses that lacked effective quality. However, a first half seemingly destined to be a productive one for Atlanta ended nil-nil and the hosts down a man.
Sporting KC’s best chance thus far came in minute fifty as Medranda played a through ball from the left for a diagonal-running right-winger Johnny Russell. A long first touch hurt the Scot as it allowed Christensen time to arrive off his line to block the coming shot near the penalty spot.
Man-to-man Sporting Kansas City efforted equally as they again-and-again made recovery runs, played physically but fair, blocked shots, nicked balls away, and thwarted attacks by the still-vaunted Atlanta attack.
And soon their guile would pay off, gloriously. In the 67th minute, Kansas City homegrown winger Daniel Salloi touched to his right 12 yards off the left corner of Atlanta’s box and curled a dipping drive around Christensen into the right corner of the net to give Sporting KC the lead. The goal was the 21-year-old’s third of the season and second in two games.
A fresh Lobato came in two minutes later for Croizet at the attacking midfield position as Sporting looked to keep the pressure on the depleted hosts. The moment to further stomp on the hosts came as Salloi was freed down the left flank by a Medranda ball over the top in minute seventy-five. Midfielder Roger Espinoza streaked down the middle of the box for Salloi’s perfect ball, only to lift the shot over the bar.
Martinez left the match for Romario Williams and midfielder Jeff Larentowicz for Kevin Kratz for Atlanta in the 76th minute, and Russell departed for Gerso Fernandes six minutes on for Kansas City.
Melia returned as savior in the 83rd minute as an Atlanta free kick by Kratz from an incidental Opara handball threatened. Melia shuffled and reached to his right to save the pelted shot, and captain Matt Besler block the follow to save the match for the guests. Another free kick, however, came three minutes later. Melia pulled an identical save again, reading Kratz’s intentions.
And then, finally, the finishing touch would be put on by substitute Gerso. Played in alone by a 40-yard ball over the top – and clearly onside – by midfield general Ilie Sanchez, Gerso settled, composed himself, rounded Christensen and deposited the ball into the middle of the net just out of reach of a sliding Zizzo for the game-clinching goal.
Yet Melia would turn Superman again before the final whistle. Almiron curled a shot from two yards inside the right corner of Sporting’s box only to see the 31-year-old rise to his right to knock the skillful attempt off the crossbar with his right hand and then catch the rebound in front of a pressuring Williams. Wow. Just wow.
The match would end there with the guests pulling off only the second visiting win at Atlanta United FC’s home in face of the league’s most terrifying attack and stopping their streak of having scored at least twice in every regular season match at the stadium since it opened Sept. 10, 2017.