At long last, the wait is finally over. Four and a half months after their last competitive game, Sporting Kansas City kicked off their 2021 campaign on the road against the New York Red Bulls.
And the wait was worth it.
While Sporting KC certainly didn’t undergo a rebuild in the offseason, this team certainly started off the season with a new look.
You thought we wouldn't show you the shape.— Sporting Kansas City (@SportingKC) April 17, 2021
You thought. pic.twitter.com/glj1oP12JW
Newcomers Nicolas Isimat-Mirin (or Isi as he likes to be called) and Remi Walter, both French internationals, jumped right into the starting lineup at centerback and holding midfielder respectfully. Andrew Fontas worked his way back into the starting XI next to Isi despite a less than stellar first couple years with SKC.
Notably absent from the starting lineup were Tim Melia, Alan Pulido, and captain Johnny Russell. While Melia is out for at least a few weeks with a chest injury, both Pulido and Russell were on the bench and available for selection.
Homegrown player and new No. 10 Gianluca Busio stepped into the starting lineup in the false nine spot in place of the injured Pulido, kicking off what is sure to be the most important season of his young career as rumors of a big money European transfer still swirl.
It took a bit after the first kick for Sporting KC to really settle into the game. Isi got called for a (questionable) yellow card very early in the match, and RBNY seemed to press Sporting KC into numerous defensive mistakes, forcing a few desperate clearances to keep the game scoreless.
About 25 minutes into the match SKC finally got some sustained possession and felt like they were starting to get their feet underneath them. Suddenly the midfield trio of Roger, Kinda, and Walter began asserting themselves and breaking up the RBNY attack while connecting with the front line to give SKC some attacking chances.
Remi Walter in particular seemed to really find his footing. His abilities to break up passing lanes, recover while tracking back, and find open passing lanes were on display a few times, giving a glimpse of what could come this season when he’s in the lineup.
The two sides traded attacking blows throughout the final 20 minutes of the first half, but neither side was able to put the ball into the back of the net before the halftime whistle.
Things once again started off a bit rough for Sporting KC to open the second half. Less than three minutes int, RBNY opened the scoring with a fantastic goal from the 17-year-old midfielder Caden Clark.
The Red Bulls sent in a corner kick, and Sporting KC couldn’t successfully clear it. The ball bounced off Isi’s head toward Clark just outside the six-yard line, and the teenager was able to send it into the top right corner off the volley with impressive skill. Unfortunately for Pulskamp there was simply nothing he could do, and RBNY took a 1-0 lead in the 48th minute.
.@iamcadenclark OUT OF NOWHERE!— Major League Soccer (@MLS) April 18, 2021
The kid with the opening goal of the game for @NewYorkRedBulls! #RBNYvSKC pic.twitter.com/FeJjexClbj
Almost 10 minutes later Busio had a couple of opportunities to bring Sporting KC level, but in the first opportunity he took one too many touches in the box and couldn’t get a shot off, and on the second his shot was too close to keeper Carlos Coronel.
That was when everything changed.
Minutes later, Sporting caught a break as RBNY defender Andrew Gutman was called for a handball in the box. Gadi Kinda stepped up to the spot and put the ball into the back of the net to pull Sporting KC level at 1-1 in the 59th minute.
Gadi Kinda from the spot for @SportingKC! #RBNYvSKC pic.twitter.com/L8XUZcZQ6l— Major League Soccer (@MLS) April 18, 2021
Newly rejuvenated after the PK goal, Sporting KC looked like a new team. Just one minute after Kinda’s equalizer Daniel Salloi looked to be back in 2018 form as he got on the end of a gorgeous cross from Khiry Shelton to put Sporting up 2-1 in the 60th minute.
Dan. The MAN.@danielsalloi | #RBNYvSKC | #OneSportingWay pic.twitter.com/9ZD1WQJ9vS— Sporting Kansas City (@SportingKC) April 18, 2021
It’s the first time since 2007 that Sporting KC scored goals in back-to-back minutes, per Sam Kovzan of Sporting KC. It was also Salloi’s first MLS goal since September 30, 2019, and his second MLS goal since October 28, 2018.
Designated player striker Alan Pulido and Johnny Russell came on in the 77th minute for Kinda and Salloi respectively as Sporting KC worked to close the game out over the last 15 minutes, something that was difficult at times in 2020.
Though Sporting fans grew accustomed to SKC giving up points late in games last year, there was never any real threat from RBNY as SKC continued to dominate possession and head coach Peter Vermes used his subs to bring on fresh legs.
Ultimately, Sporting KC finished the game off well, defeating the Red Bulls 2-1 and earning the full three points to start the season.
Despite some clear mistakes (especially early on) and numerous things to work on going forward, it was an encouraging start to the 2021 campaign for Sporting KC. RBNY’s lone goal came from a golazo, and SKC responded well. All three lines improved as the game went on, and the team seemed to get more and more cohesive with every minute. Remi Walter looked good in his debut, Busio did well in his first game wearing the No. 10, Salloi looked closer to his 2018 self, and Andreu Fontas made some solid defensive plays. All of this without arguably their three best players in the starting lineup in Alan Pulido, Johnny Russell, and Tim Melia.
Sporting KC will look to build off this momentum as they head back to Kansas City for the home opener against Orlando City SC at 6:30 p.m. on Friday, April 23.
What did you think of Sporting KC’s performance in the season opener? Let us know in the comments!