Sloppy, disjointed, and in disarray is how Sporting Kansas City looked for much of the first half of their first match in 11 days, a match that all hoped would begin their road to recovery. But a near-emergency mode defense, Tim Melia, and a busted play gained the much needed victory, 1-0 over a shorthanded Crew in Columbus on Sunday.
One year ago – after 15 MLS matches – Sporting Kansas City stood tall in the Western conference at 29 points, with only two losses (8-2-5). Sunday, as they faced Columbus Crew (5-9-2 in 2019) at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio, Sporting sat in 12th place at 16 points (3-5-7), and without a league win since April.
With 10 days off since a 4-1 U.S. Open Cup loss at Minnesota United FC in the Round of 32, the improving health of the side, and the return of key players from international duty, hope for a season-saving run of form from Kansas City had risen.
Their opponents on the day sat in a similar situation. Columbus, too, had just one win since the start of April. Yet, the Crew were without forward and leading scorer Gyasi Zardes, influential midfielder Wil Trapp, and key center back Jonathan Mensah due to international duty, as well as classy playmaker Federico Higuain, out for the season with an ACL injury.
Seeking forward momentum and their first away win, Sporting Kansas City lined up in their 4-3-3 with Tim Melia in goal; (r to l) Graham Zusi, Botond Barath, Matt Besler, and Seth Sinovic on the backline; Ilie, Felipe Gutierrez, and Benny Feilhaber in the midfield; and Gerso, Kristzian Nemeth, and Daniel Salloi up top. Forward Johnny Russell was kept out of the lineup due to an undefined leg injury.
An arguable no-call on a possible penalty when Gerso touched deep in the Crew box and a near-goal by Columbus nullified by an offside highlighted the early action before the Crew’s David Accam was forced out of the match by an apparent hamstring injury. Midfielder Luis Argudo stepped on for the pacy Ghanaian.
Sporting were unable to gain a rhythm in the first 20 minutes, spending much time containing Columbus thrusts forward. Melia kept the scoresheet blank in the 21st minute as Harrison Afful played a central Hector Jimenez from the left wing. Jimenez struck strongly from 14 yards, but Melia reached up to his right to deny the sure goal.
Four minutes later, Melia was nearly victimized with the ball at his feet. Argudo rushed to pressure the back pass from Barath and stripped the ball from Melia. However, Melia recovered to force a subsequent innocuous corner. In the 29th minute, a Zusi giveaway and a failure to clear enabled a Jimenez shot that curled just wide of Melia’s right post.
Melia’s influence continued in the 35th minute as he swatted away an entry ball from a corner; then, carried outside the six-yard box by his momentum and his awareness, stopped a point-blank shot by Afful.
Sporting’s best chance of the half fell to leading scorer Nemeth in the 40th minute. Off a ball flicked back by a Crew defender, Nemeth creeped in alone on former Kansas City goalkeeper Jon Kempin. Readying his shot, Nemeth was caught by a retreating Afful who poked the ball away.
Despite all that had gone awry for Sporting, a seemingly busted play got them on top in the 48th minute. A sublime ball from Sinovic freed Salloi down the left wing. The Hungarian played inside for his countryman Nemeth. Nemeth passed further inside for Feilhaber, who seemed impeded by Gutierrez just in front of him. As Feilhaber lamented the interference and his wide attempt, Gerso kept the ball from going over the end line, nutmegged his defender, and fed a doorstep-standing – yet onside – Gutierrez, who nodded easily for his 7th on the season.
Center back Andreu Fontas entered the match for Besler in the 60th minute as Besler worked his way back into fitness and was on a yellow card caution.
In the ensuing minutes, Sporting absorbed and denied persistent Columbus pressure with a few clearances and some saves by Melia, culminating in an easy catch for Melia off a Crew free kick from the right wing. After, Gedion Zelalem replaced Feilhaber in the midfield.
The odds of Sporting closing out the win jumped up in the 74th minute. With a Salloi-fed Gerso streaking for goal centrally behind the Crew defense, the coming Afful tripped the Guinea-Bissau native just outside the 18, earning a straight red card for impeding a sure goal scoring opportunity.
Bucking the recent trend of dropping leads late in matches, Sporting held on for the win through the six minutes of added time and gained the vital three points.
Sporting Kansas City will lace up their boots again for a Saturday clash at rival Real Salt Lake, who they now trail by a sole point for the last playoff spot in MLS’s Western Conference.