It was a high-interest match for the SKC faithful as Sporting Kansas City visited FC Cincinnati’s Nippert Stadium for the first time in MLS history.
Contrast was the order of the day as Kansas City was going from playing Liga Mx Monterrey, one of the top teams on the continent, to MLS debutant’s FC Cincinnati (2-2-1). But this is MLS and even debutants can play on a level even with league stalwart’s like Kansas City (2-1-1). Wins over Portland Timbers and New England Revolution and a draw with reigning Supporter’s Shield champs Atlanta United highlighted the host’s early resume.
The Sporting lineup contrasted much from last Saturday’s 7-1 demolition of Montreal Impact and last Thursday’s 5-0 loss at Monterrey in the Concacaf Champions League Semifinal Leg 1. A host of players got their first MLS regular season start for 2019, including former US and Arsenal wonderkid Gedion Zelalem in the midfield, Yohan Croizet at center forward, Rodney Wallace and newest acquisition Nico Hasler at wide backs, and Adrian Zendejas in goal. The lineup was rounded out by Kelyn Rowe and Johnny Russell on the wings, with Gianluca Busio and Ilie Sanchez joining Zelalem in the midfield, and, for the first time, Botond Barath and Andreu Fontas pairing at center back. How would Sporting KC respond? This would definitely be interesting.
Zendejas, on his MLS debut, was called on in the very first minute. Allan Cruz got by Wallace on the right wing and crossed into KC’s box. His first touch a fumble, Kenny Seif then fired at a strong standing Zendejas who blocked for an innocuous corner.
Ten minutes later, Sporting threatened through Croizet. Rowe knocked an errant Cincinnati pass forward into space on the left. Croizet’s impressive burst of speed got him one-on-one with goalkeeper Spencer Richey. Yet, Richey was equal for the save at the near post.
Soon, though, a scramble in the box would mean yellow for Kansas City and a penalty kick for the hosts. A ball over the top in the 17th minute saw Zendejas rush to the top of his box as his defenders trailed breaking Cincy midfielder Roland Lamah. Lamah touched the ball over the ‘keeper only to be bowled over by Fontas. Referee Ismail Elfath showed no hesitation in pointing to the spot, and, after review for mistaking Ilie for the foul, showing Fontas the caution. MLS veteran Darren Mattocks finished low to the right corner for the lead.
In a thickening plot, Sporting would lose Wallace to injury in ten minutes time as regular starter Seth Sinovic replaced him. Then, a vital block by Zendejas at the near post on Mattocks in the 29th minute during a scrum in KC’s box kept Sporting within one.
Rowe should have equalized in the 33rd minute. Eleven yards from goal and central after a Russell entry dribble and Busio pass, Rowe skied his attempt over the bar before Mattocks threatened again a minute later. Played in by Greg Garz on the left wing, the Jamaican beat Hasler and rattled a shot off the far post.
For much of the final ten minutes of the half, Sporting’s possession and composure on the ball gained them an edge but no defined chances. The match’s outcome seemed determinant on adjustments (and possibly the remaining two subs) made by Kansas City in the second half.
The second half began brightly for Sporting as a Russell rush in the 49th minute saw his close attempt put wide as Richey and a marker pressured at the near post.
To likely up the push in midfield, Vermes inserted Chilean Felipe Gutierrez for a serviceable-but-lacking-impact Zelalem in the 57th minute.
Shortly after, Rowe let a ball go through to Croizet from Fontas on the left channel and into Cincinnati’s box. Croizet shot well across his body for the far post, but Richey lunged for the save. The rebound eventually settled to Gutierrez who touched left and fired low, only to have his shot blocked.
The pendulum swung the other way in three minutes as a Gutierrez giveaway led to substitute Kekuta Manneh in on Zendejas from eight yards with another strong chance to put the hosts up two. But the shot squibbed mercifully wide from his right foot.
Now chances came fast and furious for both sides. After one more for each, Sporting got the equalizer. Rowe played a diagonal ball off a classy touch from an Ilie pass on the left wing. Running with a back-door marker, Busio stayed in the play as Garza and Richey collided at the top-center of the box. Busio ran on and placed the ball in the open net for his second of the season.
Sporting’s final sub saw league four-goal scorer Kristzian Nemeth come in for Croizet at striker in the 70th minute.
But it would be Cincinnati who would strike. Nick Hagglund, off a cross-box serve at the back left post, put away a header for a lead by the hosts. However, the offsides flag went up, and a possible point for Sporting was saved.
No significant chances were created until the three minutes of extra-time wherein Russell, fed by a Busio-to-Rowe cross-box combination and with time and space, went high from 18 yards out in a chance that could have gained all three points for Kansas City.
A Barath foul at the left edge of Sporting’s box allowed a dangerous chance to close the match, but the subsequent shot by Leonardo Bertone was driven just over the bar.
Thursday will see Sporting effort to overcome their 5-0 deficit against Monterrey at home for the 2nd leg of their Concacaf Champions League semifinal series before Kansas City hosts the New York Red Bulls on Sunday at home.