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Sporting KC ekes past battling Union in home-opening win

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Melia strong in net as an Ilie goal, supplemented by an own-goal, nab 2-0 win.

MLS: Philadelphia Union at Sporting Kansas City Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Four days at home since Thursday and a home crowd were the right remedy for a Sporting Kansas City (1-1) side coming off nearly 10,000 miles of air travel in 18 days. The travelers took root at Children’s Mercy Park and settled in for a 2-0 win over a pesky Philadelphia Union (0-2) side they had beaten only once in their last seven regular-season meetings going back to 2014. The win snaps a string of two losses – a 2-1 loss in the Concacaf Champions League in Panama on Wednesday and a 2-1 loss at LAFC in the MLS opener a week ago Sunday.

Kansas City Manager Peter Vermes trotted out a lineup similar to the first-choice side for the season, save for center back Botond Barath – getting his first MLS start – for the injured Andreu Fontas and 16-year-old midfielder Gianluca Busio – nabbing his eighth MLS appearance and second start – for Roger Espinoza, who was suspended for the match due to red card suspension from a testy LAFC encounter.

An odd tying up of boots in the 2nd minute between Sporting’s Graham Zusi and the Union’s Cory Burke portended a soon fateful bungling.

In the 5th minute, the Union threatened via a skillful interchange inside Sporting’s box. Warren Creavalle smoothly took down a cross at Sporting’s left post and back-heeled for newly-acquired Mexican International Marco Fabian. However, Fabian’s strike was well wide of the mark.

Six minutes on, Russell cut in from the right on a bolting run and played for a central Nemeth. Nemeth looked to strike, but a Union defender cut it short with a timely intervention. In the ensuing scramble, Busio was bowled over by an overzealous Auston Trusty in the box. Referee Chris Penso’s call for a penalty was upheld after VAR review. Ilie promptly and powerfully deposited the spot kick to Andre Blake’s left for the 1-0 lead.

Zusi drew a caution in the 22nd minute for a tangling of legs at the edge of Sporting’s box, but nothing came of the resulting free kick. Both sides’ flowing play required shifting defensive postures and made for some good opportunities in the previous and ensuing run of play. For the moment, both defenses held under the pressure.

Russell drew a caution from Fabain in the 31st minute as the motif of fouls – nine by minute 35 – continued to characterize 1v1 encounters. Sporting’s second yellow – on Busio in the 37th minute – was a light earn, however, as the teenager simply efforted through the play.

The 39th minute saw fate level the match, nearly. His leap short of defending a flighted ball off a corner at the back post, Sporting left back Seth Sinovic remained in air as the ball caromed off his flailing arm after a Union player hit the ball back across. A VAR review was enough to convince Penso, and he called for the penalty. Fabian stepped up and drilled a shot to the right of Sporting KC goalkeeper Tim Melia. Melia, facing his 20th penalty in five years with Sporting, stone-walled the attempt, for his eighth pk save in Sporting Blue. Those eight saves are the most for any goalkeeper in MLS in that time.

The half ended with Sporting on the short end of total shots, open play crosses, and duels won, signaling the visitors were not here to succumb.

And it was the Union who threatened first in the second stanza. Burke pinged a shot from Melia’s left some 15 yards out in the 49th minute, springing to his right, Melia two-fisted the knuckling blast to safety.

A Russell free kick from the right saw Sporting go near seven minutes later. Gutierrez latched onto the rebound and stung twice for goal. A left-footed volley from the top of the box was blocked, but his follow volley steamed just over the bar.

Fabian’s impact on the match would continue in the 60th minute. After Russell battled for a loose ball, Fabian struck the prone Scot in the chest with his foot, drawing a straight red for the jab after a Sporting protest and VAR review. Unrattled themselves and now up a man, Sporting took the free kick from the top left of the box and rattled the far post on a dipping drive by Zusi.

Philadelphia’s accurate swerving crosses had caused headaches all match, and in the 69th, one from Haris Medunjanin from the right forced another Melia save. Burke nodded a powerful header on goal, yet the ever-ready Melia thrashed right for the sure-handed save.

Kelyn Rowe, acquired from New England Revolution in the offseason, made his Sporting home MLS debut in the 77th minute, coming into the midfield for Busio, who, a moment earlier, touched past Blake and just missed latching the continuing ball in front of an open Union net. The sub followed the Union’s sub of Sergio Santos for Fafa Picault four minutes before.

Rowe would play initiator in two minutes time. Carrying in the inside right channel, Rowe played wider for Gerso. The winger struck a cross that Union back Jack Elliott side-footed past Blake into his own net. The own-goal ended a match-long period of uneasiness as Sporting had yet to put the match away.

Now with the lead, Vermes inserted Daniel Salloi for Russell, and then Yohan Croizet for Ilie in the final ten minutes.

Thus, after six separate flights and three away matches in three different countries and time zones over 18 days, Sporting gained their first league win in two tries and defeated Philadelphia for only the second time since April of 2015.

But the tasks keep coming for Sporting. A decisive match looms Thursday night for Sporting Kansas City. Independiente will visit Children’s Mercy Park for the 2nd leg of a Quarterfinal Concacaf Champions League series. Sporting trails 2-1 on aggregate, yet holds a valuable away goal. Kansas City’s next MLS match is next Sunday at Colorado Rapids.