Self-inflicting, reckless, yet ultimately effective. Sporting Kansas City gained three big points to stay near the top of MLS’s Western Conference Wednesday evening over the visiting Chicago Fire. Winston Reid played hero on both ends of the pitch, while Sporting may have lost two starters in the fray.
Sporting Kansas City’s hosting of Chicago Fire Wednesday evening at Children’s Mercy Park had a feel of “Who are you?” The side that has been near the top of the Western Conference all season – largely due to a 4-1 start – has not won back-to-back matches since the MLS is Back tournament in July. After a 2-1 win in Houston on Saturday, would the top-contending-Sporting confirm they are for real? Or would the inconsistent side that registered a 2-4-2 record between rear its head against a Fire squad currently out of the playoff picture?
Kansas City’s team defense would likely tell the tale, as the attack has yet to be shutout. Manager Peter Vermes’ back four remained the same from Saturday, while the rest of the squad, short striker Alan Pulido on international duty with El Tri and plus Gadi Kinda returning from suspension, was much changed. Ilie Sanchez, Roger Espinoza, and Gianluca Busio manned the midfield, while Kinda played the “false” 9 with Khiry Shelton and Johnny Russell flanking him.
The whistle… and boom. Tim Melia’s first touch in the first minute was a poor one. Melia’s grounded pass out of the back was picked by Chicago attacker Fabian Herbers who bore down on goal all alone. Melia tackled the ball away, managing only a yellow card, but earning a penalty kick.
Beric stepped up to take the kick, looking likely to add to his five-match scoring streak. As Referee Marcos de Oliveira spoke with Melia, Ilie ran near Beric, likely to wish him luck. Beric’s low strike was subsequently save by Melia to his right. Early crisis averted.
Alarms sounded again in the 18th minute. Both right back Graham Zusi and midfielder Roger Espinoza were felled by Chicago fouls in the buildup to a Busio shot. After Busio’s shot was saved, the Fire’s Francisco Calvo and Fabian Herbers were responsibly shown yellow. Zusi, however, was unable to continue and was replaced by Jaylin Lindsey.
Sporting nearly broke through with a flurry in the 28th minute. After a Kinda attack was turned away deep on the left of Chicago’s box, Espinoza’s following blast was blocked. Yet, Russell corralled the rebound at the top-right of the box, spun deftly to his right, and blasted a shot from 13 yards that was deflected high and out at the goal’s doorstep by a well-positioned Fire back.
Kansas City’s attacks continued direct and quick, while the Fire’s were methodical. Melia, though, still struggled with his distribution, sending several passes out of play.
A Busio shot wide to the right off a run from the left in the 43rd minute was the remaining highlight of the half for Sporting. But their collective hearts skipped a beat a minute later as Chicago’s Djordje Mihailovic saw the ball free at his feet from a teammate’s tackle just outside Kansas City’s box. As Melia came, Mihailovic chipped for goal only to see the ball hit the post and bounce harmlessly away.
Vermes further shuffled his deck at the half, inserting Daniel Salloi for Espinoza and pulling Kinda back to midfield, Shelton to the 9. Within a minute, Shelton was on the attack from Salloi. Shelton ran out of space, but Salloi followed with a skillful chip that was deflected away.
Attacking haste led to giveaways and unforced errors for Sporting in the next ten minutes, while they turned to near-emergency defending to turn away a few Fire attacks. All the while, a composed Reid preached calm and sensible alternatives for the home side.
His impact would mean more soon. Russell floated a corner to the back post in the 67th minute. Gaining inside position on his mark by hustle alone, Reid, soon on his backside from a Brandt Bronico shoulder, nodded the ball off post and into the net for a 1-0 Kansas City lead. It was the New Zealand native’s first MLS goal since joining Sporting on loan from West Ham United. And likely not his last.
Shortly thereafter, Busio, ailing from a knock self-earned earlier on an aggressive tackle, was replaced by Felipe Hernandez.
Sporting nearly doubled their lead a number of times, but they protected the lead for three points that will loom large in the standings. A Portland Timbers draw or loss later in the night means Kansas City moves up to second in the West. Sporting will next host Nashville SC on Sunday.