Sporting Reclaims First Place in 1-0 Win over Minnesota
Sporting Kansas City (6-3-2, 20 points) returned to the summit of the Western Conference with a well-earned 1-0 win over rivals Minnesota United FC (5-4-2, 17 points) on Sunday night at Children's Mercy Park.
Johnny Russell's dramatic 80th-minute strike off a brilliant assist from Graham Zusi separated the sides in a game that Sporting dominated from start to finish, as Minnesota failed to put a single shot on target for the first time ever and suffered their sixth loss in as many visits to Kansas City since joining MLS in 2017.
The resolute victory vaults Sporting two points ahead of second-place Seattle Sounders FC in the ultra-competitive West, while Minnesota keeps provisional hold of third. Goalkeeper Tim Melia's third shutout of the season came at the expense of a suffocated Loons outfit that entered the night ranking second in MLS in goals per game.
Taking the field for the first time since Sept. 5, Sporting deployed a reshuffled lineup as Manager Peter Vermes made three changes to a side that fell 2-1 at the Houston Dynamo. Luis Martins reprised his left back role-joining Zusi, Matt Besler and Roberto Puncec on the backline-while wingers Russell and Gerso Fernandes jumped back into the starting XI on either side of center forward Khiry Shelton in attack. An unchanged midfield consisted of playmaker Gadi Kinda and Homegrown duo Gianluca Busio and Felipe Hernandez, while Melia started his 182nd game for the club in all competitions.
An electric, end-to-end start saw both sides threaten inside four minutes. Minnesota carved out a rare opening when Jacori Hayes crouched low to settle a cross from Raheem Edwards and lay the ball off to Mason Toye, whose right-footed curler near the top of the box lifted harmlessly over the crossbar.
Not long later, Sporting squandered a glorious chance during a frantic moment in Minnesota's penalty area. Gerso's driven cross fell to Hernandez, who then played square to Kinda. The midfielder's shot was blocked through traffic, and although the rebound skipped invitingly to Russell, his half-volley from 10 yards out fizzed inches wide of goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair's left-hand post. The Loons breathed another sigh of relief in the sixth minute when Martins' tantalizing delivery to the back stick was headed off target by Kinda.
The visitors gained a decisive foothold as the half wore on and had a 15-1 shot advantage by intermission. On the half-hour mark, Zusi's thunderous, long-range volley caromed off a Minnesota defender and behind for a corner kick. The Loons failed to clear Busio's ensuing in-swinger and Gerso slithered past a pair of defenders before picking out an open Puncec, but his first-time effort sailed wayward.
The industrious Shelton asked more questions of the Loons defense in the 37th minute, bursting into the box and prompting St. Clair into a save. Zusi, Gerso and Martins all tried their luck on the brink of halftime, none providing the elusive breakthrough.
Sporting kept firm control of proceedings after the restart despite the introduction of high-profile Minnesota substitutes Chase Gasper, Robin Lod and Kevin Molino, all of whom have featured as regular starters over the course of the year. Two minutes into his second-half cameo, 19-year-old Homegrown midfielder Cam Duke galloped down the left flank and played centrally to Gerso, who lashed a blistering shot wide of the near post. The fleeting look preceded two golden opportunities for the hosts at the hour mark.
In the 59th minute, Sporting broke on a quickfire counter-attack involving Martins and Gerso that culminated with a side-footer from Kinda that dragged inches amiss. Shortly thereafter, Duke and Kinda sprung forward and found a streaking Gerso, but his resulting shot once again misfired by the slimmest of margins.
Minnesota survived a major scare on 66 minutes, as Gerso' delectable clip across the face of goal was settled well by Russell. The Scottish international cut centrally and unfurled a low piledriver that Loons defender Bakaye Dibassy booted clear off the goal line.
With 10 minutes remaining and Sporting still in command, Russell would not be denied. Zusi floated a superb long ball over the top, allowing the forward to race behind the backline, take a touch and slot low past St. Clair for the proverbial knockout punch.
Russell bagged his third goal of the season on the play and the 24th of his Sporting career in all competitions, while Zusi tabbed his 28th game-winning assist in the MLS regular season-tied for eighth-most in MLS history and the second-most among active players. The goal also pushed Sporting's scoring streak to 11 matches, the team's second-longest run to start a regular season and one shy of equaling the club record.
Having beaten Minnesota for the second time in 24 days, Sporting will now prepare for the next phase of the continued MLS regular season. Vermes' side is back in action Saturday as fellow MLS originals FC Dallas (3-2-4, 13 points) venture to Children's Mercy Park for a 2:30 p.m. CT kickoff. The contest will air live nationally in Spanish on Univision and UniMas and regionally in English on FOX Sports Kansas City, FOX Sports Midwest and FOX Sports GO.
Sporting Kansas City Manager Peter Vermes
On his halftime message to the team...
I thought we played really well tonight. Having the week buildup that we needed for this game with so many new players in the team and guys out for injuries and then having to take Khiry (Shelton) off, I thought our ability to keep the ball and probe the field and create the chances that we did - it was great. I told them at halftime: I said, 'The biggest thing that can't happen is that we lose our discipline to our shape and we can't get impatient with the fact that we've created a bunch of chances and we just haven't put one in the goal yet. We're doing everything that we need to do, except the final piece and that's score, and we're going to create more chances in the second half. Let's just not abandon what we're doing thinking that we have to change something because you think that it's not working, but it actually really was.' I give them a lot of credit for sticking with the plan and being very consistent because they were very, very good tonight.
On attacking the wide spaces...
If you look at us at the end of the game, we played (Gianluca) Busio, (Felipe) Hernandez, (Cam) Duke. We're just as changed up as any team in this league right now. Gadi (Kinda) was playing as a false nine for the last 30 minutes of the game. It's not an easy thing to get numerical superiority in the wide channels or to move the ball like we did and keep possession and probe the team from side to side. They're a good team. They have a lot of good players. The players that they brought on late in (Kevin) Molino, (Emanuel) Reynoso, (Chase) Gasper - those guys can play. They brought on their starters. So for us to still be able to control the game like we did and walk away with the three points here at home, it was deserved, it for sure was deserved today with the way that we controlled the game and the passes and the chances that we created.
On the status of Khiry Shelton...
He told me he was feeling a little tight with a muscle. It's better that he did that than force himself and then all of a sudden, he's out for a couple weeks. I always tell the guys: when it comes to a muscle, you've got to be really smart. He made the right decision. It just really altered us today to have to get the job done with putting Gadi as a false nine. Gadi actually did a tremendous job there.
On the play of Gadi Kinda as a false nine...
We've never used him in that position. That's the only thing we had available to us today. What was I hoping to see? I was hoping to see him score six goals and we could get out of here today, but obviously that wasn't happening. The bottom line is that he did what needed to be done. It was not an easy situation for him to go into. The other piece is we lost height on set pieces there at the end. The guys did a really good job to manage that, as well.
On not conceding a shot on target...
It first says a lot about our ball possession. It's not just possession to keep the ball. It was possession with a purpose tonight. The guys were very good. They created a lot of chances so I think that's one of the first reasons why. The second was that I thought that we were very organized defensively as a team. A lot of that has to do with we had really good positioning offensively, which put us in really good positions to try to win the ball back quickly or press the ball because of our good positioning.
Sporting Kansas City defender Graham Zusi
On his assist to Johnny Russell...
We were in a kind of press situation where I think we had played a long ball and lost it and they played one, then (Matt) Besler went up for the header and kind of knocked it down into the middle of the field. I was able to collect it with a little bit of time and I just saw Johnny's hand go up and him dart across the center of the field. I knew that their line was a little bit spread because of the action that just had happened, so I just curled it right down the middle of the field and let Johnny's momentum take him into the path of the ball. He did the rest. I just put him in a good spot and Johnny put it away for us.
On the team's dominant performance...
I think we fully deserved the three points. We had opportunities in the first half to score two, three, maybe even four goals if we're really clinical. But, credit to us to keep pushing and not get away from what we were doing well in the first half. We kept them under pressure for really the whole game and we were patient to get the goal.
On the team's hectic schedule, and training...
The games have been coming fast and with not a lot of rest in between, so naturally that can cause some tired legs at the end of the game. This week was a really good preparation week for us. Training was very, very sharp. We knew at the beginning of the week how we were going to play and we put that into action throughout the training week. Everything was extremely sharp and it translated into the weekend. You saw some nice fresh legs with the week break and we were able to push through the 90 minutes.
Sporting Kansas City Forward Johnny Russell
On his chances before his goal ...
The one in the first half, I have no excuses. I should have scored that. The one that was cleared off the line has just happened so many times recently with teams coming here and defending really well, getting lots of bodies behind the ball and clearing it off the line. I should have finished the first one and probably the second one, but I never lose belief in myself or my teammates and I'm going to continue to create chances. That was a great ball from (Graham Zusi). We were playing with a bit of a false nine dropping in and creating a little bit of space through the middle and I just took my chance and ran through it. It was a great ball from (Zusi), and I took a good first touch and got a shot at goal that luckily managed to go in as well.
On Minnesota playing a very defensive game...
You just look at the way Minnesota have been playing recently. We expected them to come out a bit more, but teams have been coming here and doing that. They've been sitting in and it's been difficult to break them down. Anyone will tell you that when the whole team sits behind the ball, it's difficult to break them down at times. There's not a lot of space. I think we've done really well at creating chances. We just haven't really taken them as well as we should. Tonight, we didn't take them but at the end of the day it's three points and I don't really care how it comes to be honest.
On getting some rest between matches...
We managed to get a couple of days off after the last one and had a great week of training working on a lot of things. We didn't have any time before that. Playing a lot of games, you don't have enough time on the training ground to work on anything so to get that time and put in a good week of training, I think you could see that the bodies were a lot fresher. We were pressing a lot harder, defending well as a team and creating chances. It just took us a bit longer than we wanted to take one.
On the leap the younger players have taken...
The more confidence they get, the more annoying they're getting so it's backfiring a little bit. The kids have come in and it's difficult to come in when you've got so many young guys at one time, but from the first minute they've stepped on they haven't looked out of place at all. (Gianluca) Busio has been tremendous. He's been amazing for us back there. Felipe (Hernandez) has been great - calm when he has to come on in games. He gives us that energy that we need at times. They've been massive for us and it's good when you lose key players that you have young guys that step in and you can trust them. They're talented players, they work hard, and they don't look out of place out there. It's all credit to them and the way that they go about their business and their profession as well.
On getting the win tonight...
That we've been on that run and we've still managed to keep ourselves there is just a credit to the way that we started. It's been hard to find consistency. This year has been about stopping and starting and not what anyone has wanted but the start that we got off to has managed to put us in a good place. We had a little dip in form and couldn't get the results that we wanted but tonight was a big one. It's a rival. It's a team right beside you in the league. They've been scoring goals and looking good. To play that way -- we know that we're capable of playing against good teams -- gives us great confidence. The last thing we wanted was to drop more points. It's a win and we'll take it however it comes. We'll build from here. We've got ourselves back on top for the time being but we're looking to kick on from this. We're not looking to look back. We set out at the start to finish on top and that's the way we're going to go about our business
2020 MLS Regular Season
Match 11 of 23
Children's Mercy Park | Kansas City, Kansas
Weather: 69 degrees and clear
Score 1 2 F
Sporting Kansas City (6-3-2, 20 points) 0 1 1
Minnesota United FC (5-4-2, 17 points) 0 0 0
Sporting Kansas City: Tim Melia; Graham Zusi, Roberto Puncec, Matt Besler (C), Luis Martins; Gianluca Busio, Felipe Hernandez, Gadi Kinda; Johnny Russell, Khiry Shelton (Cam Duke 54'), Gerso Fernandes
Subs Not Used: John Pulskamp, Amadou Dia, Andreu Fontas, Jaylin Lindsey, Graham Smith, Wan Kuzain
Minnesota United FC: Dayne St. Clair; Bakaye Dibassy, Jose Aja (Chase Gasper 46'), Michael Boxall (C); James Musa (Robin Lod 46'), Jan Gregus, Hassani Dotson, Jacori Hayes (Thomas Chacon 76'); Marlon Hairston, Mason Toye (Emanuel Reynoso 67'), Raheem Edwards (Kevin Molino 46')
Subs Not Used: Fred Emmings
SKC -- Johnny Russell 3 (Graham Zusi 1) 80'
SKC -- Gianluca Busio (yellow card; unsporting behavior) 84'
SKC -- Roberto Puncec (yellow card; dissent) 87'
MIN -- Hassani Dotson (yellow card; unsporting behavior) 90+2'
SKC -- Gerso (yellow card; time wasting) 90+3'
Stat SKC MIN
Shots 21 6
Shots on Goal 7 0
Saves 0 5
Fouls 9 11
Offsides 1 1
Corner Kicks 9 2
Referee: Kevin Stott
Assistant Referee: Kyle Atkins
Assistant Referee: Brian Poeschel
Fourth Official: Malik Badawi
VAR: Jorge Gonzalez
AVAR: Fabio Tovar
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