Sporting Claws Back to Claim 2-1 Win over San Jose
Second-half goals from Benny Feilhaber and Graham Smith lifted Sporting Kansas City to a 2-1 comeback victory over the San Jose Earthquakes on Saturday night at electric Children's Mercy Park.
San Jose (11-9-5, 38 points) grabbed a first-half lead through serial goal scorer Chris Wondolowski, but Sporting (8-11-7, 31 points) staged a spirited rally after the break as Feilhaber equalized with a sweetly struck half-volley before Smith bagged his first professional goal to give the hosts three precious points in a thriller that saw both sides combine for 44 shot attempts.
The much-needed win lifts Sporting within six points of the seventh and final playoff spot in the Western Conference with eight regular season matches still to play. The Earthquakes remain above the playoff line in sixth place, having suffered their 12th loss in their last 13 regular season visits to Kansas City dating back to 2004.
Selecting a matchday squad for the third time in eight days, Manager Peter Vermes made three changes to the starting lineup from Wednesday's 1-0 defeat at Orlando City SC. Left back Luis Martins landed his first MLS start, Feilhaber returned to the midfield and Erik Hurtado reprised center forward duties as Seth Sinovic, Ilie Sanchez and Gianluca Busio dropped to the substitutes bench. One day after announcing his retirement from the Honduras Men's National Team, veteran Roger Espinoza notably logged his 274th Sporting appearance in all competitions, taking sole possession of fourth place in club history.
Saturday's clash was a tale of two halves, and the visitors asserted early control with Cristian Espinoza and Magnus Eriksson threatening to draw first blood inside 10 minutes. San Jose would find their breakthrough in the 25th minute thanks to the all-time leading goal scorer in MLS history. Wondolowski shook free of his marker inside the box, latched onto Espinoza's corner kick and steered an emphatic header off the left post and into the net for his 154th career MLS goal.
Put behind the eight-ball, Sporting ventured forward on the half-hour mark as Jimmy Medranda and Johnny Russell combined twice in quick succession on the edge of the 18. However, Russell's header flashed wide and Medranda's drive through traffic was blocked, and the Earthquakes nearly doubled their advantage on 43 minutes when Vako embarked on a mazy run before seeing his shot deflected behind for a corner kick.
The script was flipped in the second half as a revitalized Sporting side gained an emphatic foothold. San Jose goalkeeper Daniel Vega did brilliantly to save Russell's dipping volley in the 47th minute, but he could do nothing about the equalizer three minutes later.
Feilhaber, an integral member of Sporting's nucleus during a trophy-laden run from 2013-2017, notched his first goal since returning to the club in May with a sublime half volley from the top of the box. His strike culminated off a clever buildup involving Russell and Medranda, both of whom were credited with assists on the play.
Petulance permeated proceedings midway through the second half as referee Drew Fischer brandished his yellow card three times in the space of six minutes. Sporting kept their foot on the pedal and went agonizingly close in the 71st minute when substitute Daniel Salloi played a lovely back-heel path into the path of Espinoza, but his lunging shot was kick-saved by Vega.
Children's Mercy Park erupted when Smith opened his professional scoring account in the 76th minute. Russell's curling free kick on the right edge of the penalty area rattled the woodwork, but the 23-year-old defender was on hand to poke home the rebound and lift Sporting in front. The tidy finish would ultimately stand as the game-winner, marking the first time Vermes' men have claimed victory after conceding the first goal this season.
The back-and-forth affair offered up a few scares for Sporting in the dying embers. Eriksson's side volley off an Espinoza cross looped just over the crossbar and onto the roof of the net in the 90th minute, shortly before Melia produced a vital save to deny substitute Danny Hoesen. Fischer blew his full-time whistle with more than 94 minutes played, igniting celebrations throughout the stadium.
Another quick turnaround awaits as Sporting now looks ahead to a Rivalry Week showdown with Minnesota United FC (12-8-6, 42 points) on Thursday at Children's Mercy Park. The Western Conference tilt will kick off at 8:30 p.m. CT and tickets remain available at SeatGeek.com. ESPN and ESPN Deportes will televise the contest nationally as part of a mouthwatering MLS Rivalry Week slate, featuring the league's most compelling matchups across the ESPN and FOX networks.
QUOTES Sporting Kansas City Manager Peter Vermes
Thoughts on the team's performance...
Tonight, our work rate was unbelievable to come back from being behind a goal. (San Jose) works very hard on the field, but we had something different today. We played with a lot of pride and I hope that the fans understand that we played for them today.
On the play of Graham Smith...
I thought he was very good. Each game, he gets a little bit better. He's just got to keep pushing.
On the play of Luis Martins...
I was impressed that he went 90 minutes. We had to make changes in different places to help the team and he found a way. I thought he did a really good job. He was good defensively. There's a lot more in him going forward, but it's part of his fitness. He was smart. He managed the game really well.
On the quick turnaround to face Minnesota...
We've got to take our next step. Minnesota is one of the best teams in the league right now. It's going to be a very difficult match so we've got to come to play.
Sporting Kansas City defender Graham Smith
On his first professional goal...
I kind of got in the box late, which is why I think I was open there. Johnny (Russell) hit a good free kick like he always does. Vega saved it and it went off the top corner and it kind of just found me there. That would have been a shame if I missed that. In the moment, I wasn't really thinking of a whole lot. I think it will set in a little later.
Thoughts on the match-up with San Jose...
That's a side that's really bought in, but we came in with a plan and we executed our plan. That's why we came out with the win.
On kicking off the homestand with a win...
We need to win every game we have left. We need to get points. This is a good start, but by no means is the season over. This is a step in the right direction. We're going to take this momentum and move it forward.
Sporting Kansas City midfielder Roger Espinoza
Thoughts on the match...
It feels great. We proved today that we can still keep up. We had a bad run early and they scored the goal. We showed grit. At the end of the day, I'm very happy that the guys were able to work hard even though we played two matches (in close proximity) before this in the heat here in Kansas City and in Orlando. The guys were mentally prepared for this game.
On the physicality in the game...
We play for the fans and for the people every day that come to the facilities. They're there for us every day. We know it's tough. Stuff happens sometimes and we knew the game was going to be physical. We worked very hard. I'm glad that we were able to show both sides - keeping the ball and the physical side.
On Graham Smith scoring the game-winning goal....
He's from Denver, Colorado. We grew up over there. We've got tough people out there. Congratulations to him. It's great to see him score and work hard. When he got the chance, he was able to take the best of it. It's good. I'm happy for him.
On setting an example with his work ethic...
Today, I gave everything I had. It's a good thing we were able to win.
San Jose Earthquakes head coach Matias Almeyda
Thoughts on the match...
I think it was an even game. Each team had one half. Even though we had our chances to go up one goal, in the second half they scored more goals than us. They stepped up their lines and that's why they beat us.
On the match-up with LAFC...
I think all opponents are hard for us and this opponent is the one making the biggest difference in the league. We've played against them twice and lost twice. We'll try to do the best that we can.
On the debut of Andres Rios...
I don't focus on one player. I look at the whole team in general. My main thing is to see how the team is doing.
San Jose Earthquakes forward Chris Wondolowski
On the game...
A little frustrating. I thought KC came out in the second half and played extremely well. We came out a little flat and got punished and rightfully so.
On his goal...
It was a designed set piece, something that we work on in the training ground. Great ball by Cristian (Espinoza) and he put it on a platter.
On scoring at least 10 goals for 10 consecutive seasons...
It's pretty cool, I really wish it came on a win but I'm very proud of that and hope to keep it going.
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