Off a refreshing and nine-game-winless-streak-busting 3-2 win over Western Conference 2nd place Seattle Sounders on Sunday, Sporting Kansas City turned around quickly to face 3rd place LA Galaxy on Wednesday night at Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kansas.
But the script didn’t follow the lead. Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s assist and goal and missed chances downed the hopes of Sporting rising further up the standings in a 2-0 loss.
The midweek fixture was a chance to gain a winning rhythm and regain early points lost in the standings. Aiding the cause was a 4-0-4 record against LA in regular season play – home or away – since October of 2015.
A likely obstacle was the return of Swedish legend Zlatan Ibrahimovic to the Galaxy’s lineup after suspension. Freshly inserted Andreu Fontas, a former teammate of Ibra’s, in for the resting Matt Besler, was assigned the task of keeping the Swede off the board, along with center back mate Botond Barath. The second new face from Sunday was Graham Zusi returning from injury at right back for Nicolas Hasler.
Although not moving on the ball as crisp as Sunday, Sporting carved out an early chance, targeting Yohan Croizet at the false 9. Felipe Gutierrez weaved an albeit bumped ball through traffic for the Frenchman; however, Croizet was unable to control the ball on the doorstep of David Bingham’s goal.
Croizet chanced playmaker in the fifteenth. On the right side of the box ten yards deep, Croizet laid back for a coming Gutierrez. The Chilean shot smartly, but found his shot blocked by Daniel Steres. Quickly on the rebound, left winger Kelyn Rowe then rolled his shot agonizingly wide of the left post.
Chances gone, Sporting was on the defense for the next 10 minutes. And if was off a corner that Melia was forced to pounce. Galaxy center back Dave Romney headed strong for the back post, but Melia – backed by a ready Seth Sinovic – and his reflexes were up to the task.
The first caution was drawn to Giancarlo Gonzalez by Croizet in the 33rd minute on an awkward challenge some 40 yards from the Galaxy goal. Yet it was Zlatan that sounded a warning three minutes on. Off a throw in from the right wing, the running Ibra beat two defenders and played across the box for a near connection with a sliding teammate.
Sporting created perhaps their strongest chance two minutes before the half. Rowe rushed with the ball for the Galaxy’s box from the left as Gutierrez steamed on a diagonal run from the right. The pass beat the trap and Gutierrez had to beat Bingham to the ball. The two came together as the ball flew away and Gutierrez flew over the top. The second half promised more urgency from each side.
Kansas City Manager Peter Vermes ended Besler’s rest and sent the captain in for Barath at the half.
Sinovic enlivened the large weekday crowd with a ball across the top of box in the 48th, yet Croizet’s hesitation left the crowd, and the match, wanting for more drama.
For their part, the Galaxy recreated the earlier Romney chance minutes later, this time with Gonzalez nodding into Melia’s prone grasp.
The third chance via the air would be the one for the visitors. Zlatan looped a headed ball to his right at the top left of Sporting’s six-yard box in the 56th minute and watched as Favio Alvarez beat a virtually still Besler to the ball to easily finish past Melia. The goal was the Argentine’s first of his MLS career.
The intensity of the match took a marked upswing after the goal. Sporting’s best immediate chance was six minutes later on a Gutierrez header popped off the bar from a Johnny Russell corner played to the back post.
Not content with the status quo, Vermes inserted 2018’s leading scorer Daniel Salloi for Rowe in the 65th minute.
It was an “Uh-oh” moment in four minutes time. Released over the top, Ibra bore down alone on Kansas City’s goal. As hearts surely dropped, Melia acted, stuffing the Swedish lion near the top of the box and keeping the match a one-goal affair.
Needing a result, the hosts pushed on, aided by the 2nd straight substitute appearance of Jimmy Medranda, who replaced Sinovic in the 77th minute. His entrance enlivened the attack, and Salloi, his left side partner. Salloi’s drive from 20 yards raised backsides from seats four minutes later, but the attempt flew high.
The death knell would come on a Galaxy counter. Released by a smart clearance, Uriel Antuna sped down the left flank as Besler raced to caught Zlatan running for the back post. A winded Besler, now present as the ball was delivered, was unable to stop Ibra’s 10th goal on the season. The 6’5” striker took the ball down and shot powerfully, beating Melia underneath for the two-goal advantage.
Sporting would not die a demure death, though, as both Medranda and Gutierrez unleashed salvos at Bingham, one being at the ‘keeper, the other coaxed over the bar by his outstretched arms.
However, another three points were not to be had by Sporting this night. Robert Sibiga blew his whistle after four minutes of extra time to end the night.
The tasks don’t get any easier as Sporting will jet to take on 4th place Houston Dynamo Saturday at BBVA Compass Stadium.