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Business-like Sporting KC take third in a row

1-0 home win over Houston keeps playoff chase moving.

MLS: Houston Dynamo at Sporting Kansas City Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

No draw. No letting up. Just business. Sporting Kansas City took care of business in a 1-0 win over Houston Dynamo Saturday night at their own Children’s Mercy Park. A first-half Johnny Russell goal and smart, organized play gained the hosts their third win in a row for the first time this season. A new Sporting Kansas City is knocking on the playoff door.

For Sporting Kansas City, Saturday night’s hosting of the Houston Dynamo (9-14-4, 10th in West) was pressure. There was something more at stake as a playoff spot – to continue the proud legacy of eight seasons in a row making the postseason and to have a shot at MLS Cup – was now a real possibility.

In recent matches, a near-desperate Sporting Kansas City (9-11-7, 9th in West) had shown character via persistence through injuries and trying times, perseverance through defensive and attacking ups and downs, and had been strong in performance, taking two matches in a row for only the second time this MLS regular season, and three of their last five.

However, Kansas City sat at least six points away from having a playoff spot in the current table, with seven matches to go. A win – over a sinking, winless-in-their-last-six, yet fighting side – would make the possible palpable. A draw, the result in 13 of the 30 regular season matches between the sides, would do neither a favor.

Sporting Kansas City began the match peppering blocking defenders and the scoreboard, but not the goal, with shots. Yet the fourth one, after the second free kick earned by left back Luis Martins, found pay dirt.

The ball was played back in hopefully over the top after the initial free kick. Hustling center back Graham Smith kept the ball in and played a looping cross to the back post. Winger Johnny Russell’s head met the cross and sent it inside far post, far out of the reach of Dynamo goalkeeper Joe Willis and just out of the reach of a retreating defender. The 12th minute goal was Russell’s ninth of the season, and it rewarded an industrious Kansas City with the lead.

Seven minutes later, Sporting reeled off a flowing series of passes beginning with Martins on the left and ending with a right-oriented Zusi ball in the box. The awe-inspiring exchanges deserved better than winger Daniel Salloi’s redirection that grazed the crossbar.

Martins was an oft-used option on the left side as his understanding of Sporting’s system increased and his craftiness on the ball allowed him to show his capable crossing ability and his more than adequate combining ability.

Yet, with seven shots, with four on target for the half, threats from Houston were far from absent. Thanks in part to some mis-struck attempts, defensive pressure, and the usual strong Tim Melia in goal for Kansas City, the Dynamo remained a mild threat. And the half ended 1-0 Sporting.

A two-goal margin was near in the 56th minute. Russell, free at the right-top of Houston’s box, beat one before feeding wide for striker Erik Hurtado. Hurtado struck heavily from 8 yards, but right at Willis from the tight angle.

In the 64th, a Kansas City corner saw midfielder Felipe Gutierrez take from Russell, run down the endline, and play smartly for an onrushing Zusi at the top of the box. Zusi’s thunderous low drive was blocked on its way. Next, Russell took center stage with a bending free kick from the left top of the box that went far post, forcing Willis to extend and push the wicked shot around the post.

Manager Peter Vermes - opposed by former Kansas City standout and Houston interim manager Davy Arnaud - made a double-switch in the 70th minute. In came Ilie Sanchez for midfielder Roger Espinoza and Gerso for winger Salloi.

The match would serve up drama in the 73rd minute. On the counter, Houston’s Alberth Elis fed Christian Ramirez for a Houston equalizer, the ball just nudged over the line by the sliding Ramirez. However, an offside by Elis nullified the goal and kept the score 1-0 Kansas City.

Jimmy Medranda entered the still-tense fray in the 81st minute for midfielder Benny Feilhaber. Would Sporting hang on or add to the lead or would they succumb under the pressure through an unforced error or a moment of Dynamo magic? In all truthfulness, the playoffs may have hinged on the answer, for each side.

Combined with the positional switch of Gutierrez to holding midfielder in place of Ilie, the growing health of the roster and the progression of Martins at left back have seemingly given a business-like Kansas City the wherewithal to dictate matches to their liking, and, perhaps more importantly, the capability of closing them out.

Thus, the match ended how Kansas City liked, and needed, despite six minutes of added time. The 1-0 victory, the third one-goal win in a row, put them in a tie for eighth place and four away from a possible playoff spot.

Now, the task gets tougher for Sporting Kansas City as they head on the road at Portland Timbers and LA Galaxy the next two weekends.