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All tuned up? Sporting KC routs Houston Dynamo in preseason finale

Early concern turns to assured performance ahead of champions league.

MLS: Mobile Mini Sun Cup-Sporting KC at Houston Dynamo Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Playing their first match against first-division, MLS competition in their last preseason game, Sporting Kansas City overcame passing errors in the back to show their offensive boots had not lost their shine from last season’s record performance. Center forward Kristzian Nemeth took a brace, and winger Johnny Russell and midfielder Felipe Gutierrez added goals in the victory.

It was short-sleeve weather Wednesday night in Tucson, Arizona, as Sporting Kansas City took on fellow MLS side and champions league competitors Houston Dynamo in their final tune-up for their CONCACAF Champions League Round of 16 matchup with Liga MX’s Toluca FC that begins next Thursday.

The teams played two concurrent split-squad games as part of the 2019 Mobile Mini Sun Cup. This report will focus on the match that was streamed live and featured the lineup that will likely feature next week.

Sporting’s lineup: Melia, Zusi, Fontas, Besler, Sinovic, Espinoza, Sanchez, Gutierrez, Russell, Nemeth, Fernandes. Side note – Left winger Daniel Salloi was kept out due to tightness in his groin.

An early Graham Zusi errant pass that ended up with Houston’s Alberth Elis was a harbinger to early action. Though that chance was snuffed out by center back Matt Besler, in the 4th minute Ilie Sanchez passed square to Elis in KC’s box. This time, Elis put the ball past Kansas City goalkeeper Tim Melia and inside the left side-netting for a 1-0 lead.

After the early hiccups, Sporting’s play settled down and bore fruit in the 10th minute. On the left wing, Gerso Fernandes rolled for a central Krisztian Nemeth. Nemeth received and turned right and fed for Johnny Russell out right. Perhaps aided by Roger Espinoza’s central diagonal run, the pass came to Russell who stroke the ball finely with his left foot first-time and into the far-left netting to tie the contest.

Fernandes flubbed a strong chance in the 21st minute off a long diagonal ball from Russell near midfield on the left. Fernandes’ expert first touch and then shimmy to the right earned him space for a shot. The Guinea-Bissau native efforted to strike with the outside of his left foot, a choice that led to an errant shot and a Houston goal kick.

Quick, insightful ball movement from middle to width and back led to the lead for Sporting seven minutes later. Chilean Felipe Gutierrez played to Nemeth on his left, who then played for a wide-right Seth Sinovic. While Gutierrez steamed forward, Sinovic hit a similar central running Fernandes who got a foot on the pass in front of the Houston netminder. The ball fell to a present Gutierrez, who slammed the ball into the empty net. After video review for a possible offside, the goal stood for a 2-1 Kansas City lead.

Sinovic’s midfield pressure forced an errant Houston pass in their own end a few minutes on. Russell intercepted the pass with his back to goal and touched for a central, faced-up Nemeth. The Hungarian, spry on the ball all match, fed back to Russell, who fed the hot hand of Fernandes. The left winger returned the favor to Nemeth at the top of the box. A solid low strike to the right of the goalkeeper gave Nemeth the goal and KC a 3-1 advantage.

Concern reigned late in the half for Sporting as pressuring Russell and a Houston player collided near midfield. Russell appeared to take a knock to his knee and hobbled off, staying off for the four minutes of injury time.

Thankfully, Russell returned to the pitch for the second half that began as the first ended, with Sporting Kansas City domination through a well-applied game plan of strong pressure and smart, ball movement to width. The somewhat mechanical movements of the early first half were a distant memory.

Yet, Houston threatened via route one in the 56th minute as Colombian Mauro Manotas was released behind the KC defense off a sweet ball over the top. Hassled by Besler, Manotas struck a shot blocked by a big-standing Melia at the six-yard box.

By the 69th minute, though, Houston had created some chances and gained some corners to somewhat level the play.

Houston’s momentum would be interrupted in the 73rd minute. Houston’s Romell Quito, recovering from a heavy first touch just outside the Kansas City box, flew into a feet-first, studs-up challenge that caught the ball, but then Gutierrez’s left ankle. The red card was drawn from the referee’s back pocket to see Kansas City go up a man. Wan Kuzain Wan Kumal came on for holding midfielder Ilie three minutes later.

The match would become a 10 v 10 affair, however, in the 87th minute. Sporting’s Espinoza earned his second yellow and the accompanying red card for an early shower.

The scoring was rounded out by Kansas City in the 91st minute after Zusi threaded a diagonal ball from the right for a central-running Nemeth. Perhaps misplayed by the Houston backline, the ball rolled to Nemeth looking to add his second. And he did with aplomb with an accurate, looping chip over the out and stranded ‘keeper and into the net. Final: 4-1 Sporting Kansas City.

Next Thursday (February 21), Sporting KC and Children’s Mercy Park will play host to the first leg of the Round of 16 home-and-away CONCACAF Champions League matchup. It will be Sporting Kansas City’s first meaningful match of the season, while Toluca currently sits 12th in Liga MX with 7 points at 2-3-1 and an even goal differential on the season.