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Sporting Kansas City starts well, ends dramatically in Houston

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Erik Hurtado goal gives Kansas City a chance in rematch after home blowout.

MLS: Sporting Kansas City at Houston Dynamo Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

First meeting – Kansas City by four. Second meeting – Houston by three. What would the third meeting between Sporting Kansas City (5-2-2) and Houston Dynamo (2-2-4) bring? Goals by each side either side of halftime highlighted a tactical, tight battle before the decisive blow was dealt Saturday night as Houston enjoyed the first in the series of matches in their home BBVA Stadium.

Perhaps Mission one against Houston was to avoid embarrassment. A 5-2 home defeat at the feet of the near-audacious, free-wheeling Dynamo was the result less than two weeks ago. Then, Sporting’s wide backs and a debutant holding midfielder were turned every which way, baiting Kansas City’s center backs to get pulled apart to cover. Since, however, Manager Peter Vermes has tightened the tactics and changed the lineup.

On Saturday, the lineup was a combination of those in the since 1-1 draws at Colorado Rapids and home to FC Dallas. Now constants Gianluca Busio and Jaylin Lindsey youthfully manned holding midfield and right back, respectively. But the rotation of center back pairings continued with Matt Besler and Roberto Puncec getting the call this night. Left back Amadou Dia and striker Erik Hurtado got their first starts of 2020, and, after subbing on against Dallas at midfield, Graham Zusi popped up at winger from his usual right back station. Winger Khiry Shelton, midfielders Gadi Kinda and Felipe Hernandez, and goalkeeper Tim Melia filled out the eleven.

The associated mission was a result, as always, for the MLS Western Conference top-sitting visitors. A draw would mean keeping at least a lock on a tie for first, pending Seattle Sounders’ result tomorrow. All three points could mean tying Columbus Crew at the top of league, pending their result versus Cincinnati on the night. A loss would mean a possible fall from the perch and a tight conference race in this COVID-19 shortened season.

A high-energy Sporting began the match as they pressured the ball quickly, and, when in possession, moved the ball quickly with many single touches and, individually, exuberant dribbles by Kinda.

But in a haunting reminder of Houston’s attacking skill and nuance, Niko Hansen received just right of Kansas City’s penalty spot off a three-player interchange in the 19th minute. His unobstructed shot was saved by Melia, then pounced on by the stalwart ‘keeper after the ball leaked behind him.

By the 30th minute, the match had balanced out in attacks in each other’s final third.

Yet, only one side would finish a chance off first. Off a buildup from the back, Kinda attacked again from middle left. The Sporting newcomer shifted the ball quickly from his left to his right and threaded past two defenders for Shelton running on the left, who then struck for goal. A left-footed save by Houston netminder Mark Maric followed, however, a hustling Hurtado cashed in at the back post to give Kansas City the breakthrough.

All was not settled. In the 43rd minute, Darwin Quintero squibbed a pass past Busio and split the middle of Kansas City’s defense to find Christian Ramirez at the top of Sporting’s box. Ramirez, hassled by the recovering Besler, struck well only to see his attempt hit the crossbar and out of play.

The half would close with Kansas City holding their 1-0 lead.

Houston was on the front foot early in the second half and added to the threat with two early subs in the 58th minute via Alberth Elis, he of one goal and one assist vs. Kansas City in that 5-2 thrashing and Ariel Lassiter, son of former MLS scoring champion Roy Lassiter. And Elis had indeed cometh. Quintero spun and dealt a chip to the right side of Sporting’s box for Darwin Ceren in the 60th minute. The El Salvadorian picked out Elis on the doorstep, and Elis finished past Melia cleanly to even the match.

Four minutes on, Vermes countered with Johnny Russell for Hurtado and Gerso for Hernandez, meaning Zusi would move into midfield.

The Dynamo paid no mind. Quintero fired from near middle in the 65th, forcing Melia to spring left to palm the ball out for an innocuous corner.

Later, Melia pushed away Lassiter in close quarters as Lassiter soloed in on goal in the 76th.

Center back Winston Reid entered the fray for Kinda in the 77th minute, resulting in an alignment of three center backs for the visitors.

Ironically, it was a ball nodded from a flighted cross that beat Sporting in the end. Zarek Valentin put a precise cross over Reid to Mauro Manotas who had beaten Puncec for position. Manotas’ header was as good as the cross and he finished past Melia for the eventual win.

Sporting had fought a good fight. Ultimately, Houston was finer in the details and came away with the full three points.

Kansas City will now host Minnesota United FC on September 13 and hope to get back in the win column after four in a row without.