All the pieces were there for Sporting Kansas City playing in front of their home fans during these COVID times. A dramatic early chance, a strong Tim Melia save. The winless Houston Dynamo as the opponent. By the time Darwin Quintero curled a low ball into the right corner of the Kansas City net in the 57th minute, who Sporting was in 2020 was in doubt.
For the first time in 171 days (March 7), Sporting Kansas City returned home Tuesday evening.
Better yet, they returned at the top spot in MLS’s Western Conference with 15 points (5-1-0). Four points separated Kansas City from Seattle Sounders and Minnesota United, who Sporting repaid for their only blemish via a 2-1 victory the previous Friday night in Minnesota.
Yet, there had been a bit Jekyll and Hyde – and a bit of macabre – in the overall season.
Two dominating wins to open the season – including a 4-0 shellacking of Houston in the home opener – were the highlights. The MLS is Back tournament began with the 2-1 loss to Minnesota, included self-inflicted injuries due to an own goal, a red card, as well as the points at the death.
The next two group matches were regular season wins, followed by another win and a quick quarterfinal exit in the playoffs. However, those four matches saw much lackluster and more injury before the final death: giving up a match-tying goal while up two men, failing to score despite a 35-8 shots advantage, and an impacting errant pass (in a quarterfinal Sporting was never really in).
Though Friday night’s resurrection in the return to the regular season was a more complete performance (save another own goal), the overall performances were not as rosy as the sterling 5-1 regular season record. What would the night bring?
From the fans in attendance (restricted to 14% capacity in one of only four MLS stadiums to allow fans), the return of their heroes elicited joy and seeming grateful applause of appreciation even as the team entered for warmups. Somehow the feel was of much more cheering.
The match kicked off with Kansas City sporting two World Cup veteran center backs in New Zealander Winston Reid and Kansas City native Matt Besler (starting after four matches on the bench). The rest of the lineup stayed the same from Friday, save for Gerso starting for Khiry Shelton on left wing.
A blast from 28 yards off the foot of Gianluca Busio was a resounding first chance for the home side in the sixth minute. Houston goalkeeper Mark Maric did all he could to parry the drive for a corner. Shortly, right winger Johnny Russell tried to volley from close range, but his effort went high.
The 15th minute brought the expected, a fine Melia save off a potent blast hit by Christian Ramirez. The attack came from the right, the same side Houston penetrated soon. Darwin Quintero cut in off a snazzy back heel from Memo Rodriguez and slid back post for a waiting, ghosting Alberth Elis who calmly finished for the lead in the 17th minute.
Nine minutes later, Sporting equalized. Gerso beat his man in Houston’s box on the right before crossing. Alan Pulido won the battle for a touch that sent Dynamo back Zarek Valentin into the goalmouth only to nod the ball off the crossbar and to the back post where an acrobatic Russell stuck it home for his second goal of the season.
A believing and free-wheeling Houston side kept pushing forward confidently and jumped on top again in the 44th minute. Again from the left, Houston found space off a trio of quick, short passes and found a wide open Elis on the right. The Honduran struck low from his right foot and sent the ball to the six where Ramirez met it for a touch into the back of the net, shaking off his trailing defender.
Ugliness had continued to shroud Sporting blue. Would the second half bring out a saving grace?
Not in the early going. Three minutes in, a sweet flick of Ramirez’s boot redirected a steaming pass from the back past Besler and behind Lindsey; Dynamo substitute Nico Hansen was in on Melia. From the right, Hansen chipped calmly over the stranded Melia for the 3-1 lead.
Just a minute later, Sporting cut the deficit in half. On the right, Zusi sent in bending cross. A Pulido touch sent the ball off the crossbar. Kinda pursued, and with his back to the goal, kicked the ball off the underside of the crossbar and over the line for his fourth goal on the season.
The light didn’t last long. Quintero skillfully took down a flighted ball on the left of Kansas City’s box and fed for a diagonal running Darwin Ceren. Ceren backheeled for Quintero running square toward the middle. A pedestrian move past Espinoza and a curling low shot later, Houston was back up two in minute fifty-seven.
To stem the bleeding Sporting Manager Peter Vermes inserted Khiry Shelton, Felipe Hernandez, Daniel Salloi, Erik Hurtado, and, eventually, Cameron Duke for Gerso, Espinoza, Russell, Pulido, and Kinda respectively.
Yet darkness had shrouded Sporting’s homecoming and it would only deepen. In the 61st minute, Hansen beat Busio with a hesitation before driving hard at a back-peddling Besler. The 25-year-old Dane threaded a beautiful pass that beat Reid and Zusi for Quintero who flicked his foot for the finish and a 5-2 lead.
Kansas City found little space against the energized Dynamo and the match ended with no further drama.