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Russell Header Lifts Sporting to 1-0 Win over Houston

August 31, 2019 - Major League Soccer (MLS) - Sporting Kansas City News Release

Johnny Russell's first-half header propelled Sporting Kansas City (10-11-7, 37 points) to a crucial 1-0 victory over rivals Houston Dynamo (9-15-4, 31 points) on Saturday night at Children's Mercy Park. The result gives ninth-place Sporting their first three-game winning streak of 2019 and keeps the club within striking distance of the seventh and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Goalkeeper Tim Melia made five saves en route to his 45th career regular season shutout-tying Jimmy Nielsen for the most in team history-as the hosts claimed a momentous win in the bid for a ninth consecutive postseason berth while stretching Houston's winless skid to seven matches.

Sporting Manager Peter Vermes fielded an unchanged lineup from last week's 2-1 defeat of Minnesota United FC, awarding veteran midfielder Roger Espinoza his 250th career start for the club in all competitions. Gerso Fernandes later entered as a second-half substitute, becoming the 44th player to log 100 appearances in a Sporting uniform.

The hosts wasted little time dictating tempo and landed the first punch on 12 minutes when Russell nodded home his ninth goal of the MLS campaign. The Scottish international's free kick into a crowded penalty area was cleared only as far as Felipe Gutierrez, who clipped a lovely ball over the top for Graham Smith to chase near the endline. The center back sent an inch-perfect delivery back across the face of goal for Russell to head past Houston goalkeeper Joe Willis, queuing celebrations across the stadium as Smith recorded his first MLS assist.

Russell was the dangerman once more in the 19th minute, finding Graham Zusi on the overlap along the right channel. His low-driven pass found Daniel Salloi on the doorstep, but the forward's first-time effort caromed off the top of the crossbar and out of play.

Melia was called into action twice on the half-hour mark as Houston gradually gained a foothold of their own. He dropped low to palm away a Memo Rodriguez strike from the left corner of the box before reacting quickly at the near post to parry Alberth Elis' deflected cross behind for a corner kick.

Salloi threatened again in the 34th minute, catching Russell's free kick cleanly on the volley and forcing Willis into a reflex stop. A gripping sequence then unfolded on the stroke of intermission as both sides went close to scoring. Sporting left back Luis Martins nearly caught Willis out of positions with a searching ball from the wing, but the goalkeeper secured possession and picked out Elis with a booming punt downfield. Elis surged goalward pulled the trigger on the breakaway, but Melia produced a fine save to keep his clean sheet intact.

The visitors improved in the second half but lacked the requisite incision to break down Sporting's defense. Vermes' men remained dangerous in spurts as well, and Willis did well to thwart Erik Hurtado after Russell had skipped past Kiki Struna and Maynor Figueroa before neatly laying it off to his teammate.

Houston thought it had conjured an equalizer in the 73rd minute when Elis dashed down the right channel and squared to Christian Ramirez for a point-blank finish, but the offside flag had been raised on Elis.

The final half-hour of an increasingly cagey match saw referee Alan Kelly brandish four Houston yellow cards as a few egregious challenges popped up across the pitch. Sporting ultimately held their slim advantage to the final whistle, leaving the Dynamo's playoff aspirations on life support.

Sporting will battle for a fourth straight triumph next Saturday when they travel to face the eighth-place Portland Timbers in yet another all-important Western Conference clash. Kickoff at Providence Park is slated for 9:30 p.m. CT with live coverage on FOX Sports Kansas City, FOX Sports Midwest Plus and FOX Sports GO.

QUOTES

Sporting Kansas City Manager Peter Vermes

On the team's performance...

I think we deserved the win for sure. I would say that we obviously scored our goal. We had some very, very good chances. I thought that their goalkeeper also did well. I thought we were organized defensively and we were really good offensively in tonight's game. We didn't give anything silly away which was great.

On keeping a clean sheet...

We were very organized and concentrated knowing that we needed to buckle down and not give anything away. I thought we were pretty good at that tonight.

On the three-game winning streak...

We've been very disciplined, for sure, defensively and we've stepped it up a notch because we have a team that can attack with a lot of weapons. We're starting to do that.

Sporting Kansas City goalkeeper Tim Melia

On the keys to tonight's victory...

Same as last week - the effort and giving nothing away defensively. We still have a long way to go but we're on the right track. We're winning at home. We're being really difficult to break down. And now we have a really important and really difficult task coming up against Portland.

On keeping a clean sheet...

I thought Graham Smith tonight was phenomenal with the amount of shots he blocked. I thought the way that we were sitting in a little bit of a lower block, they weren't stepped up very high but when they did they were trying to play the ball over the top to (Alberth) Elis when he transitioned in the middle. We did a good job being in front and being behind him. The big difference is that we just have more confidence. It was never a doubt if we were good or if the team was talented. But right now we're in a good mind space and we need to keep going because we need to win quite a few more games to get into the playoffs.

On next week's match at Portland...

Portland is a really difficult place. It's a place we've had a little bit of success when we've gone there, but they're in the same position as us. They're trying to get above the last place in the playoffs. We've got to grind. It's going to be an absolute grind. It's going to be a great environment with the new addition to their stadium. Those are the type of atmospheres we want to play in and we're looking forward to it.

Sporting Kansas City forward Johnny Russell

On his takeaway from the match...

I think just the consistency we've been showing recently. It's not been pretty at times but we're back to our old selves - keeping the ball and creating chances. We need to take a lot more then we're taking right now but that's down to us. We're solid defensively. We're working hard for each other. I said it a few weeks back - we're not going to give up without a fight. I think we're showing that. We've let everyone down for so long this season with the way we've played. We're showing everyone we want to be here. We want to win. I think the last few weeks and last few results have shown that.

On Tim Melia becoming the team's all-time shutouts leader...

It's a tunnel for him in practice. When you're breaking records, you're getting tunnels. For as long as I've been here and before that, Tim has been so big for us. He makes some incredible saves. The guys along the backline have been great in front of him, as well to limit their chances - still a few more than we would like, but when you've got a goalkeeper like Tim back there you always feel a little bit safe even if someone is one-on-one with him.

On his goal...

It was a great ball in from Felipe (Gutierrez) to begin with and Graham does well to keep his run onside. It was great composure and it was difficult the way he caught it to loop it over the backpost. I wanted to get myself into an area that I could maybe get in and luckily for me he put it right on my head and I managed to tuck it away. I'm delighted to get a goal and obviously for it to go toward a victory as well.

On celebrating with the fans...

(Matt) Besler invited me. He's been getting half beers. I got like a two liter of Bud Light. It's good fun. When you get wins, it's nice to celebrate a little bit with the fans. They've been here week in and week out and they've stuck by us through some tough times this year. It's nice to give a little back to them.


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