For Sporting Kansas City, mired in a down season featuring just 12 points in 14 games (2-6-6) since March 30, questions have abounded.
Has the veteran core lost a step, their quality surpassed in an ever-evolving league? Is Sporting’s 4-3-3 possibly passé? Are the injuries wholly to blame, or have egregious errors been made in talent evaluation? Is Roger Espinoza integral to the system? Was Wednesday night’s 5-1 home loss to LAFC the bottom?
Questions happen when a team falls from the catbird seat in the West in 2018 to a dank, sometimes lifeless, cellar in less than a season.
To be honest, all involved tire of the questions. What is clear is this: Concerted effort into answers on the field and in the refining of tactics and personnel are the priority if Sporting is to gain some real momentum and salvage the playoffs. Or the proud franchise streak of eight straight seasons of playoff soccer will end.
Saturday night’s hosting of Chicago Fire was the first of six of their next 10 MLS fixtures at home until the end of August. Time to hone at home.
Manager Peter Vermes re-inserted Graham Zusi at right back and Botond Barath at center back (next to Captain Matt Besler) and started Gedion Zelalem in midfield and Yohan Croizet as a false 9 likely looking to spark some life into the lineup.
Spraying long balls over the pitch, Sporting began prettily, but nonproductively. A Gerso cross cut off by Fire goalkeeper Kenneth Kronholm at just inside the near post area in the 9th minute roused the fans some, yet it was countered by a Fire rush down the left wing three minutes later. With Zusi beat, a centrally retreating Besler interceded in front of his marker for an ultimately innocent corner.
Sporting had countering plans of their own, the moderate pace of 34-year-old Bastian Schweinsteiger at the center of the Fire’s backline was likely a tactical point going in. And in the 14th Gutierrez fed Croizet with a threaded ball up the middle after a turnover. The Frenchman glided past the German and beat Kronholm to the right with a low shot that rolled into the net. The goal was Croizet’s third of the season.
Doubling the lead would go far in erasing the memory of Wednesday night’s drubbing. Gerso nearly made good ten minutes on with a wondrous move. Dubbed dead after attracting a trio of defenders on the right side of Chicago’s box, the third-year winger lithely lifted the ball over and through the three in a moment of magic, escaping to tag an authoritative left-footed shot that bent wide of the far post. The moment begged for more.
Sporting continued to create chances. However, a central Croizet shot off another Gutierrez feed in the 38th minute was rolled into Kronholm’s waiting arms and a light Gerso attempt was easily handled at the near post a minute later.
After the break, Sporting created a tasty buildup through a Croizet-Gerso combination, only to see Salloi misfire on a clear chance that the young Hungarian would have buried a year ago en route to being Sporting’s leading scorer. Gutierrez followed with a heavy shot right at Kronholm off a free kick, and Gerso with two shots within minutes of each other. Thus, the match remained in sight for the Fire.
More chances came during a flurry in front of the Chicago net that saw a save, a block, and a free Gutierrez shot from 12 yards right hit wide of the mark in the 57th minute.
Krisztian Nemeth replaced Croizet in the 66th minute for Vermes’ first substitution in a match crying for a second Kansas City goal. But 2019 Sporting does not often live anywhere near free and clear.
The biggest roar on the night bellowed out from the crowd in the 73rd minute as winger Johnny Russell returned to the pitch for the first time since May 29 after international duty and an injury. The Scot replaced Salloi.
The changes altered nothing in the way of chances. They still came. They still went wanting. By the 76th minute, Sporting had 19 shots, nine on goal.
Vermes’ third insertion was Gianluca Busio for Zelalem in the 83rd.
Sporting warded off a dangerous Fire free kick in the 88th minute before nearly putting the match away. Gerso, 10 yards out and left, struck for goal only to see his shot ring off the inside of the post and right back at him. An alert Kronholm captured before Gerso could follow.
Four minutes of extra time came – as did another scintillating, defender-eluding run by Gerso, ending in a point-blank miss by Nemeth – and went, and Sporting had done enough to capture a critical three points. Three points that will mean something if Kansas City can put two wins back-to-back, something they have not done all season.
The boys in blue will now travel to Vancouver for a Saturday matchup with the Whitecaps.