Gerso Fernandes late entry put an edgy Wednesday match into freedom for Sporting Kansas City in their final group match of the MLS is Back tournament in Orlando, Florida. Before then, a late collapse, as has been Sporting’s history, was feeling familiar against their familiar Real Salt Lake rivals.
Coming into the contest, Sporting Kansas City needed either a win or a draw against Real Salt Lake to qualify for the knockout stage. That, and the early 8am Eastern time match start, was the challenge for Manager Peter Vermes’ charges.
To that end, Vermes went with a few changes to the starting eleven. Returning in goal was Tim Melia after serving a red card suspension for the 3-2 win over Colorado Rapids, while Johnny Russell returned to the left wing. Inserted for the first time as starters this season were Graham Smith at center back for Captain Matt Besler and Gianluca Busio at midfield for Gadi Kinda for Kansas City, 3-1 on the 2020 MLS season.
And it was Russell who awakened the match with an early goal. After a Busio corner, the ball pinged around with a shot from Ilie, then Smith, both blocked, followed by Russell’s right-footed stab that rolled past RSL goalkeeper Zac MacMath 51 seconds in.
The bright start was indicative of Sporting’s early energy, cutting off RSL’s passing lanes and spraying the ball around the field. Sprung by Smith centrally, Khiry Shelton, playing on the left wing, had a wayward MacMath one-on-one a few minutes later. However, Shelton’s marker was able to intervene after Shelton’s head flick past the ‘keeper.
Danger was present in the 27th as Kansas City repeatedly failed to clear their box after a RSL restart. Calm was eventually restored, but RSL had begun to see more of the ball.
By the first half hydration break – during which RSL Manager Freddy Juarez stated that they were targeting space either side of Sporting’s #6 (Ilie) – and after, RSL controlled the flow of the match, creating moderate danger repeatedly.
The first half ended with Sporting on the short end of possession and not having a shot on goal since the early flurry despite holding the 1-0 lead.
The second half began better for Kansas City, culminating in a Shelton led chance, once again. Busio turned in midfield and attacked the RSL last line while Shelton gave Busio a penetrating option with a splitting run. Busio’s ball threaded Shelton in on MacMath, yet the attacker’s shot was saved in the 51st minute.
In a shift, Vermes injected youthful Felipe Hernandez for Roger Espinoza in the 58th minute. Young legs for a perhaps fatiguing 33-year-old. Only three minutes later, Hernandez skipped quickly past Erik Holt on the right wing and angled into the RSL box. His cross eventually ended up on the foot of Pulido whose strong effort was denied by MacMath.
Gadi Kinda and Amadou Dia replaced Busio and Luis Martins in midfield and right back, respectively, in the 67th. Shortly after, Shelton streaked in on MacMath and was taken down inside the right side of the box. Replays showed influential contact to the feet of the attacker by the RSL netminder, but no further action was taken via VAR.
Vermes final two substitutions entered in the 84th minute to add some late energy and hopefully avoid a late collapse. Wingers Gerso Fernandes and little used Daniel Salloi entered for Russell and Shelton.
The likelihood of collapse lessened dramatically soon after.
Off a Pulido switch, Gerso received on the right wing, touched inside Donny Toia and released a far post bender from his left foot that punched the net for the 2-0 lead and a hopeful win in the 86th minute.
The first goal of the season for Gerso perhaps would wrap up not only a path through to the Round of 16, but perhaps first-place in the group for Kansas City, pending the evening result between Colorado Rapids and Minnesota United FC.
Sporting would see out the match and await their fate and next opponent after a disjointed, but deserved victory.