Scottish International Johnny Russell, supported well by a cast of young players and up-and-comers, shined for Sporting Kansas City in a 2-0 U.S. Open Cup win at Real Salt Lake Wednesday evening. Russell and Kharlton Belmar scored the goals as the visitors controlled the match, allowed few serious threats, and pushed the defending Open Cup champions onto the next round.
Sporting Kansas City (8-2-4 in MLS) traveled to Real Salt Lake (7-6-1 in MLS) Wednesday evening for a Fourth-round matchup in 2018’s Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup tournament – the first in which MLS teams enter the 105-year-old competition. The defending Open Cup champions, Sporting KC came into the match after having gone 2-1-2 in their last five MLS fixtures, while RSL had gone 4-1-0. However, outside of regular season play, Sporting had defeated RSL in both of their last meetings: the 2013 MLS Cup and the 2015 U.S. Open Cup semifinal.
In a compelling side note, the match marked the first competition between brothers Matt (SKC) and Nick Besler (RSL) in a professional match. In addition, Sporting KC listed no less than six players on its injury list ahead of the tilt.
But the big story for Kansas City was its 5-4-1 starting lineup that featured three players under 20 years of age – back Jaylin Lindsey (18) and midfielders Wan Kuzain (19), and Gianluca Busio (16), and four other first-team players who regularly feature for the 2nd team – Swope Park Rangers – in striker Kharlton Belmar, backs Emiliano Amor and Amer Didic, and goalkeeper Adrian Zendejas. Busio’s entry makes him the youngest player to ever appear in Sporting KC colors in a competitive match. Similarly, Real Salt Lake’s lineup was peppered with those from their 2nd team and those who have been under-served in minutes.
Giveaways and uneasy touches characterized much of the early minutes as each team settled in with their unique lineups. As play continued, penetration inside, play between the lines, and effective wing play went wanting in the first 20 minutes before things began to click and the pace to rise.
Sporting’s Busio began to make an impact on the right side later in the half as he forced defenders to cut off passes angled back into the box and through balls for Belmar up front. For Salt Lake, Luis Silva played string-puller in similar moments.
The 43rd minute brought drama as Belmar played for Scottish International Johnny Russell who beat one defender as he broke centrally into the box with RSL goalkeeper Connor Sparrow bearing down. Russell flicked a shot, but the attempt failed to split the ‘keeper’s wickets. The half would thus end at 0-0.
It would be Sporting Kansas City that would jump on top two minutes into the second half. An unexpected source in Amor began the play as he forayed up the middle-right channel to play a splitting ball (dummied by Busio) into Belmar near the end line. Belmar pulled back for the middle of the box where a streaking Russell met the ball 8 yards out with a diving header that rippled the net to Sparrow’s left.
The goal inspired RSL’s attacking energy and creativity as they cultivated two dangerous attacks in the subsequent minutes. However, Sporting’s backline held strong despite a few errant clearances.
To bolster the midfield spine, SKC manager Peter Vermes put on veteran Honduran midfielder Roger Espinoza in the 67th minute for Lobato as Kuzain moved to the backline. To counter, RSL’s Mike Petke inserted attacker Brooks Lennon three minutes later. And it would be Lennon who would break through to Zendejas soon. The backup goalkeeper came out to meet Lennon wide in the box on his right to pressure and force the attacker backwards until defensive support could arrive.
Yet Sporting would go up two. Russell received 35 yards out and ran centrally. He beat one defender for pace, fought off another, teased a third by momentarily showing the ball, and then passed across goal for Belmar who slid with an RSL defender for the ball. The two’s momentum carried the ball into the net for a credited Belmar goal to cap off what has become a Johnny Russell trademark – the spirited defense-beating solo run. Moments later, Russell, who played 90 for Scotland in Mexico Saturday night, exited for Daniel Salloi. Well done, lad.
Gerso Fernandes pulled off Wan Kuzain in the 83rd minute to complete Kansas City’s allotment of substitutes.
The kids and company had turned in a good team performance highlighted by Russell’s aplomb. The result had been obtained for Sporting Kansas City as they moved onto the next round, likely to be played June 16 or 20. Attention will now turn to a difficult battle at 4th place Portland Timbers who are 6-0-1 in their last seven on Saturday for the top team in MLS’s Western Conference.