The first-place team in Major League Soccer had nothing easy on Sunday night, but by the time referee Alex Chilowicz blew his full-time whistle, Sporting Kansas City had emerged victorious and put a damper on LA Galaxy’s Fourth of July celebration at Dignity Health Sports Park.
With a gutsy 2-0 triumph over their longtime Western Conference rivals, Manager Peter Vermes’ side ascended to the top of the Supporters’ Shield table and showcased yet again why the league’s most resilient team just might reside in Kansas City.
Sporting has built its successful 2021 narrative around late-game comebacks, collecting a club-record five come-from-behind wins less than three months into the season. And although the visitors never trailed in Sunday’s clash between title-contending heavyweights, they bagged yet another last-gasp win when the game’s outcome was in doubt.
After weathering wave after wave of Galaxy pressure over the course of the evening, Sporting landed a fatal counter punch in the 81st minute when captain Johnny Russell opened his 2021 scoring account. Five minutes into second-half stoppage time, fellow forward Khiry Shelton raced away on the counterattack to notch his first goal of the year and put the icing on the cake.
“It was one of those games where you had to dig deep,” Vermes appropriately declared postgame.
On the heels of a dramatic 2-1 home win over LAFC last weekend, Sunday’s result marked the seventh time in team history—and the first such occasion since 2014—that Sporting has hit a game-winning goal after the 80th minute in back-to-back regular season matches.
Russell and Shelton provided the late fireworks on Sunday as Sporting extended their MLS-leading goal tally to 24 goals on the season—a total that includes a league-best 16 goals in the second half. But the man of the match was undoubtedly Sporting’s man between the posts. Goalkeeper Tim Melia had seven saves en route to his second shutout of the year, delivering a jaw-dropping display that is sure to land him a spot on the MLS Team of the Week presented by Audi.
In a game that saw the Galaxy consistently pepper Sporting’s goal, Melia posted seven saves in a shutout win for the fourth time in his regular season career and the fourth time by an MLS goalkeeper this season.
Perhaps more impressively, Sunday was the eighth time since the dawn of the MLS Opta era in 2010 that a goalkeeper has made seven saves in a shutout road victory against an opponent with a winning record. Three of those instances have seen Melia shine as the star of the show, as he previously accomplished the feat against the Galaxy and Atlanta United FC in 2018.
“Tim was fantastic,” Vermes said. “He did so much more for us just in his management of the game and his confidence, his bravery to play out of the back, and he knew when to sit on the ball. He was excellent in all phases of the game.”
Moving into the first full week of July, Sporting boasts a league-high eight wins and 26 points, holding the Supporters’ Shield tiebreaker against still-unbeaten Seattle Sounders FC. And in many ways, Sunday’s victory was the continuation of a pattern that has become increasingly hard to ignore over the last two seasons.
We are referring, of course, to Sporting’s ability to win away from home. Kansas City’s eight regular season road wins since the start of 2020 are the most in MLS, and their plus-six road goal differential during that time is also the best in the league.
The Galaxy had every intention of nixing that trend this weekend but ultimately came away with nothing in a game that will leave head coach Greg Vanney’s team frustrated. As the table below illustrates, Sporting has made a habit of stealing three points in visits to Dignity Health Sports Park, having won in three of their last four trips to Carson, California.
A comprehensive team effort has allowed Sporting to experience significant regular season success over the last two years, but a few players deserve underlined recognition for their respective contributions. For instance, Sporting are 16-4-3 with midfielder Roger Espinoza in the starting XI since the start of 2020. This season alone, the team is 8-1-2 when Espinoza and forward Daniel Salloi start together.
Then there’s the industrious Shelton, whose penchant for quietly going about his business to help Sporting prevail cannot go overlooked. In two separate stints with Sporting (2018 and 2020 to present), Shelton boasts a .681 winning percentage when he plays, a .685 winning clip when he starts and a remarkable .739 winning percentage when he starts at center forward in the regular season.
“I think the world of Khiry,” Vermes said. “He’s got an incredible work ethic. He’s the ultimate team guy. I couldn’t be happier for him. He deserves the goal for him because of the amount of work that he puts in within the game and the chances that’s he in and around. I hope that this is the beginning of something for him because what he does for the team. Every time he’s on the field, he helps us get results.”
Shelton was deployed as Sporting’s No. 9 on Sunday in the absence of striker Alan Pulido, who will be with the Mexico Men’s National Team for the next month on Concacaf Gold Cup duty.
Last but certainly not least, we reserve space to recognize another milestone of longevity for legendary Sporting defender Graham Zusi. On Sunday, the 34-year-old became just the seventh player in MLS history to record 300 regular season appearances with a single club. Only two of the seven on the list below—Zusi and retired LA Galaxy midfielder Cobi Jones—have been one-club players in MLS.
Sporting will enjoy a period of rest and recuperation prior to resuming their regular season campaign on July 21 when the San Jose Earthquakes visits Children’s Mercy Park at 7:30 p.m. CT. Tickets for the game are available at SeatGeek.com, including family four-packs, as Vermes’ side begins a busy stretch of late-summer fixtures in the ultra-competitive Western Conference.
“It helps immensely going onto a break with a win,” Vermes said. “But nothing has been accomplished yet. We’ve got a lot of work to do. We’ve got a lot of games ahead of us. We’ve got a lot of guys we’ve got to get back healthy. We’ve got to keep fighting and trying to grind out points because they’re hard to come by in this league.”