The juggernaut of consistency and quality took on Los Angeles noir and Hollywood panache in the 2019 MLS opening match for both Sporting Kansas City and LAFC Sunday night at LAFC’s Banc of California Stadium. And despite playing their third match in eleven days, it was Sporting Kansas City’s consistent quality that nearly grabbed the happy ending. A first half finish by Krisztian Nemeth and a Diego Rossi leveler early in the second half was enough hope for the antagonists to spoil LAFC’s curtain-raiser, despite a testy storyline and a short-handed Kansas City.
The climax of the plot was still in doubt when Sporting KC midfielder Roger Espinoza earned his second yellow and accompanying red card for a foul on LAFC midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye in the 84th minute. The ejection certainly added to KC’s challenge, but the drama was ripe from the beginning.
Sandwiched between their 5-0 Concacaf Champions League Round of 16 two-leg series win over Liga MX side Toluca FC that ended Thursday and their Quarterfinal matchup with Panama side Independiente FC next week, Sporting Kansas City took a planned detour to Los Angeles to open their MLS regular season against 2nd year club LAFC Sunday night.
Somewhat surprisingly, Kansas City manager Peter Vermes held his lineup steady for the stern opening contest in front of a critical away match in Panama Wednesday. Although Sporting topped LAFC twice last season (2-0 in LA and 2-1 at home on Decision Day), LAFC finished third in the West last season, scoring 68 goals – three more than Sporting KC, top-finishers in the West – second only to 2018 MLS Cup Champions Atlanta United.
Sporting started the match in spry fashion. Their first chance came in the 4th minute as right winger Johnny Russell switched fields for Gerso on the left wing. Fernandes, on a hot start with two goals and an assist against Toluca, disrupted the LAFC backline, leading to a flurry of attempts, but no goal for the visitors.
Clever and quick movement out of their own left side saw Sporting create again soon through Gerso, center forward Kristzian Nemeth, and Russell. Gerso’s high cross was knocked down by Nemeth for Russell. Russell stung a return ball for Nemeth at the six-yard box by the near post. Nemeth got the outside of his left foot on the ball, but LAFC ‘keeper Tyler Miller corralled the clever shot.
LAFC found some joy through the middle of KC’s lines, but Kansas City was able to avoid any early ruptures.
Nemeth, said to be questionable for the match due to an ankle knock, would soon, however, find a crack in the LAFC backline with an educated finish in the 16th minute. Taking space at the top of the 18, Nemeth took a return pass from Russell, flicked the ball low to the far post simply with his right foot, and found the net for his first goal of the MLS season. The goal was the Hungarian’s third on the year, and it began with Nemeth showing well into space and being a pivot point for the attack.
In the 22nd minute, VAR was given a look by referee Robert Sibiga for a possible handball by Sporting KC center back Andreu Fontas off a ball in the box from LAFC’s Carlos Vela. However, no penalty was given.
Sporting Kansas City picked up their fourth yellow card of the match in the 31st minute as midfielder Roger Espinoza’s late challenge on LA forward Diego Rossi. The cautions were all warranted as Sporting seemed intent on cutting any open space for LAFC’s talented attackers out early.
As the half hit the late stages, Kansas City was disrupted by the home side’s high press, but had so far escaped any damage as goalkeeper Tim Melia easily handled two shots and Besler played hero in the 34th minute on a ball from Vela bound for a back post Christian Ramirez. The waves of attacks inspired the LAFC supporters as they reignited their impassioned push for their side’s glory.
Nemeth would earn the fifth caution of the half for a clumsy run-in with LAFC’s Lee Nguyen in the waning minutes. Consequently, five minutes were added to the half.
After a Russell shot was easily saved to start the half, Sporting would be drawn level. Rossi received a switching ball from Eduard Atuesta, turned Zusi inside, and, using Fontas as a shield, curled a low ball outside the reach of a sprawling Melia and inside the far post for the first goal of the campaign for LAFC in the 47th minute.
The goal and the continual fending-off of LAFC attacks taking advantage of seemingly more space looked to mean doom for Kansas City. Vela would break through alone some 40 yards out with three KC defenders trailing in the 58th minute. But left back Seth Sinovic and Melia forced his eventual attempt out of play. Perhaps fatigue was a factor for the travelers.
In the 62nd minute, Vermes would make his first substitution, inserting newly-acquired Kelyn Rowe for midfielder Gutierrez. Fontas picked up a knock in 68th and was replaced by Hungarian newcomer Botond Barath in the 68th minute. Four minutes later, former Sporting winger Latif Blessing entered for Nguyen, followed shortly by Kansas City’s last sub, Daniel Salloi for Gerso.
But a happy ending was not to be for Sporting Kansas City. The death knell came two minutes from time in the 93rd minute off a ball that fell fatefully to the feet of Adama Diomande from a mistouch by teammate Jordon Harvey on the left side of Sporting’s box. The Norwegian turned inside on Zusi with his left and drilled a right-footed blast past a helpless Melia and into the upper left of the net.
The end was criminal for Kansas City, but a proper finish for the team that had a lot on their side on the night. Sporting Kansas City will return to MLS action after their Panama visit next Sunday at home versus Philadelphia Union.