In a matchup between the top two teams of in the Western Conference, Sporting Kansas City rolled into Lumen Field and did what no team had managed to do so far in 2021: Top the Seattle Sounders and leave with all three points, taking a 3-1 victory thanks to first-half strikes from Johnny Russell and Daniel Salloi and later a first MLS goal for Cam Duke.
Here are three takeaways coming off Sunday’s match.
1. A Sporting Statement
Neither team was at full strength coming into the matchup due to injuries and international absences, a caveat that Sporting head coach Peter Vermes was quick to acknowledge on his postgame press conference.
"Yeah, I don't think you can go that far,” Vermes said, when asked whether the result could be looked at as a statement victory. “I think that, look, they're obviously without a lot of players, we’re without a lot of players. I think right now everybody's kind of going through the grind of the summertime.
“And, you know, I think we're just fortunate enough to put together a good effort which resulted in a good result. So, you know, outside of that, we're still points behind they’re still points ahead and we got to keep trying to gather as many points as we can as we move through the season here."
The coach isn’t wrong. Both teams have been leaning on their depth in recent weeks due to injuries and international call-ups that have left them without key contributors. Still, take nothing away from what an impressive performance this was from the visitors to get a win that puts them within two points of the Sounders at the top of the West, and with a game in hand.
The Sounders have managed to keep stacking up results all season seemingly no matter the lineup, and still had plenty of quality on the field on Sunday including Raul Ruidiaz, Joao Paulo, Fredy Montero and a backline anchored by Yeimar Gomez Andrade.
And, as Russell pointed out, Lumen Field is one of the toughest places to get a result in the league no matter the circumstances.
“Seattle are up there for a reason, they’re a great side,” Russell told Bally Sports Kansas City on the postgame broadcast. “But so are we, we know that. We are where we are for a reason. Everyone talks about everyone else and leaves us out of the equation. Time and time again we show what we’re about and tonight was no different. Difficult place to come, one of the best places in the league to come. To come here and get a result like that, control the game like we did, it's a massive three points for us.
"It’s not just about this game. This was a big marker of what we can do and it’s up to us to continue that. There’s no point coming here and getting the three points and letting it slip somewhere else.”
2. Duke Dagger
After Russell and Salloi staked Sporting to a 2-0 lead in the first half, it suddenly became anyone’s game in the 51st minute when Montero pounced on a deflection in the box and cut the lead to 2-1.
That left Sporting clinging to a one-goal advantage, until an unlikely hero in Cam Duke stepped up and found a back-breaking third tally. The 20-year-old homegrown opened his MLS account in style, making a clever run behind the Seattle backline and first-timing home a volley off a feed from Graham Zusi.
The milestone tally put Duke at the center of the celebrations in what was a raucous postgame visiting locker room, with his teammates barging in and dousing him with water midway through his media availability.
Milestone aside, Sporting need their depth pieces to step up and contribute as they continue to navigate a challenging stretch without the likes of Alan Pulido and Gianluca Busio – who are both away on international duty at the Concacaf Goald Cup. On Sunday, Duke did exactly that in a crucial moment.
"Well, I would just say that I'm very happy for him,” Vermes said. ”You know, sometimes I think guys have to prove to themselves that they could do certain thing where they can play at this level and I think at times for young players, what happens is doubt creeps into them a little bit.
“I think for Cam, at times he's had ups and downs, maybe in his confidence. I think these last two games the way that he's approached the games has been tremendous for the team.”
3. Unfamiliar Feeling for Seattle
The Sounders were riding high coming into this game, coming off arguably their most impressive win of their season so far in Thursday’s 1-0 victory over Austin FC that saw Brian Schmetzer roll out five teenagers in his starting XI.
As much as that meant to the organization, Schmetzer said after the game on Sunday that maintaining that level of energy on a short turnaround was something that gave the coaching staff some concern as they looked ahead to a formidable opponent in Sporting KC. As it turned out, those concerns were founded.
“We had talked internally about this being a trap game,” Schmetzer said. “You go into this game against an opponent that is right behind you in the standings, they were up for the game and the emotional high of what we accomplished in Austin – it was hard for the team emotionally, it seemed like, to get ready for this game.
“We talked about it as a group, we talked about it as a collective, not just with the coaches but with the players as well,” he continued. “It’s just hard sometimes to get back up on the horse and provide another inspired performance. I thought we were lacking that a little bit, that little of inspiration. We just didn’t have that. Plus, there were some performances that weren’t up to their standards, by senior players, by younger players, it just wasn’t up to the standard.”
The sky is far from falling in Seattle, even after taking the type of home defeat that has been exceedingly rare in an era under Schmetzer where the Sounders have been one of the most dominant home teams in the league in the confines of Lumen Field. Seattle are still 9W-2L-5D and remain atop the Western Conference at 32 points for the time being. And their roster should start gradually returning to full strength as players trickle back from international duty and a variety of injuries.
Even so, defender Shane O’Neill said it’s important to use these types of defeats as a moment of reflection, as the team tries to work through its first real stretch of adversity in 2021.
“Kansas City came in here with a pretty strong mentality, they came to win the game, maybe out-dueled us a little bit,” O’Neill said. “That’s a veteran group over there, so we know we’ve got to maybe this is a good turning point for us and a good sort of eye-opener where maybe we need to raise our level up again and come back stronger next week.”