Alan Pulido’s late first half goal gave Sporting Kansas City a breath of life. Yet, three goals in 15 minutes were the deciding factor for Kansas City in the quarterfinal match at the MLS is Back Tournament in Orlando, Florida, Thursday evening against Philadelphia Union. Being on the short end of the flurry meant a fight for the Vegas-chosen favorites.
In four matches at the restart tournament, Sporting Kansas City had neither been an offensive juggernaut, nor a defensive rock. Their goals-scored to goals-allowed ratio coming into the quarterfinal match against the Union was 6-4. The Union, however, have at least been stronger defensively with a 5-2 ratio, punctuated by Andre Blake’s 21 saves.
Bunker in and counterattack had been The Union’s action. Thus, Sporting would be unlikely to move on to the semifinals with the woeful finishing that hobbled Kansas City’s 35 attempts at goal against the full-bus bunkering Vancouver Whitecaps Sunday.
Two changes marked the quarterfinal lineup for Manager Peter Vermes. Gianluca Busio, who scored the winning penalty kick in the eventual shootout win over Vancouver Whitecaps, gained the start in midfield in place of Gadi Kinda, and Daniel Salloi stepped on for regular winger Khiry Shelton (out due to a knock).
The first quarter hour saw both sides’ organizing well defensively, with each attack probing without finding any points of penetration. Until the 24th minute.
Alejandro Bedoya’s run through Kansas City’s last line prompted a strong Sergio Santos feed on the right side of Tim Melia’s box. Bedoya calmly fed for Jamiro Monteiro who finished easily into the net past the stranded Melia.
Sporting chocked up their own trouble two minutes later. Off a free kick deep in the Union’s end, Luis Martins’ poor touch backwards into the center of midfield allowed Santos to surge solo towards a coming Melia. The Brazilian’s deft chip over Melia’s shoulder put the match suddenly into near desperation for Kansas City at 2-0.
The trouble would deepen in the 39th minute, beginning with Bedoya on the right. The American played left for Brenden Aaronson, who feinted a step right while letting the ball run – duping two Sporting defenders. The upstart playmaker then spied Santos on the far right and split Busio and Graham Smith with his spot-on pass. For the second time on the night, Santos fired and found the net under Melia.
However, a bright light shone a minute into first-half stoppage time. Johnny Russell, on the right wing, hit a precise left-footed cross for a back post sneaking Alan Pulido. The Mexican native nodded home true to the far post to give Sporting some momentum and hope going into the break. The goal was Pulido’s fourth on the season and put the match to 3-1.
Vermes pointed Amadou Dia and Gadi Kinda further revival duties at the start of the second half, putting them on for Martins and Busio respectively.
And, after a foul on an endeavoring Dia in the 49th minute, Pulido hit a 20-yard free kick from just off-center top of the Union box that pinged off the left post, nearly cutting the deficit to one.
Kinda, an attacking demon from his insertion, drew a foul and a yellow card in the 53rd. Yet, Pulido’s effort on the left side of the box was blocked at the wall this time. Four minutes later, a slicing and dicing Kinda fed for an inspired Russell. Taking Kinda’s cues, Russell danced around defenders along the end line and fed. Eventually, Russell returned to put the ball in the net, but from an offside position.
Ilie and Salloi exited for Felipe Hernandez and Gerso Fernandes in the 64th minute for Sporting.
Gerso struck near post in the 73rd, but Blake was there to save the sharp-angled shot. Soon after, Gerso fed Espinoza at the top of the box, but the Honduran skied his attempt at goal.
Sporting’s fight never flagged, though their continuity, their fluidity suffered as the half progressed. The last substitute saw Cameron Duke enter for Espinoza in the 84th, the homegrown’s MLS debut.
The late theme continued for Kansas City, as their somewhat self-inflicted wounds bled the strength from the side in the waning moments.