Recap: Kevin Ellis scores late as Sporting KC grabs pivotal 2-1 road win over San Jose Earthquakes

Sporting Kansas City claimed an invaluable 2-1 road victory over the San Jose Earthquakes on Saturday night, jumping up to fifth place in the Western Conference with a gutsy performance at Avaya Stadium.

Dom Dwyer headed the visitors ahead inside seven minutes, and while Simon Dawkins leveled terms shortly before halftime for San Jose (7-9-13, 34 points), a back-heel from defender Kevin Ellis gave Sporting Kansas City three massive points in the club’s push for the MLS Cup Playoffs. 

The result saw Sporting Kansas City (12-12-7, 43 points) exorcise demons of past and present: Peter Vermes’ men earned their first win in San Jose since August 2000 — ending a dismal run of 18 straight league matches, including playoffs — and snapped a 12-game road winless run in MLS that began on April 17.

Now with 43 points from 31 games, Sporting Kansas City is two points ahead of the sixth-place Portland Timbers and eight ahead of the seventh-place Seattle Sounders, who have three games in hand on both teams directly above them in the Western Conference standings.

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A reshuffled Sporting Kansas City lineup included three changes from last Sunday's 2-2 draw against the LA Galaxy. Nuno Coelho stepped back into central defense alongside Ellis, while veteran Paulo Nagamura returned to the midfield for just his third MLS start of the season. Benny Feilhaber was notably deployed as a winger for the first time in his Sporting KC career, joining Dwyer and Jacob Peterson in a three-pronged attack.

Dwyer’s early header gave Sporting Kansas City a dream start, but not before the visitors survived a scare within 15 seconds of kickoff. Fullback Jordan Stewart exploited space down the left flank and whipped a teasing cross into the six-yard area, forcing goalkeeper Tim Melia to punch clear. Chris Wondolowski settled the rebound at the top of the box and sent a blistering strike goalward, but Melia was well-positioned to parry wide.

As the play unfolded, San Jose forward Quincy Amarikwa suffered a knee injury and was subsequently stretchered off the field, ushering Henok Goitom into the match. The Earthquakes were forced to make a pair of first-half substitutions, as Stewart limped off in the 33rd minute and was replaced by Shaun Francis.

Saad Abdul-Salaam would draw a foul on Stewart in the seventh minute, giving Sporting Kansas City the set piece it needed to take the lead. Feilhaber played short to Nagamura, who was afforded space 30 yards from goal. The veteran midfielder floated a brilliant ball to the back post, allowing Dwyer to nod home for his team-leading 15th goal of the season and his third in as many games.

The Earthquakes restored parity three minutes before the break when Marvell Wynne lofted a long free kick into the penalty box. Victor Bernardez rose to flick the ball into the six-yard area, where Coelho was accidentally clipped by Goitom while attempting to clear the danger. Coelho fell to the turf and Goitom seized the loose ball, back-heeling into the path of Dawkins for an easy finish into an open net.

Melia produced a fine save in the opening minute of the first half and did so again just seconds after the restart. Quintero was played into space down the right wing and fizzed a low cross to Wondolowski, whose deft flick-on to the far post was touched wide by Sporting Kansas City’s outstretched goalkeeper. Melia made another superb stop on the hour mark, diving to his right at full extension to smother a low piledriver from Quintero. 

Halfway through the second period, Sporting Kansas City’s Roger Espinoza was issued a yellow card that will rule him out of next Saturday’s match at the New England Revolution due to caution accumulation.

Sporting Kansas City spent most of the second half weathering pressure from the hosts, but carved out an excellent chance in the 77th minute. Feilhaber accelerated into the attacking third, spreading the ball wide right to Brad Davis. The substitute cut into the middle to put the ball on his patented left boot, but his bending shot to the far left post was touched inches wide by goalkeeper David Bingham. 

Ellis, who earned his 50th career regular season start on Saturday, provided the heroics with nine minutes left. Feilhaber’s in-swinging corner kick from the left flag sailed just over the head of a leaping Ike Opara, but Ellis was stationed close by in a crowded goalmouth, back-heeling the ball into the net for his first MLS goal of the campaign and arguably the most important goal of Sporting Kansas City’s 2016 season. Feilhaber’s assist was his sixth in eight games and his 10th on the year, making him just the second player in club history (Preki) to reach double-digit assists in multiple regular seasons.

San Jose would throw numbers forward in the dying embers of the contest, but were unable to breach a Sporting Kansas City side that finished with a season-high 39 clearances.

Sporting Kansas City continues its three-game road swing next Saturday, venturing to the East Coast for an interconference clash against the New England Revolution (9-12-9, 36 points) at Gillette Stadium. Winners of three straight league matches, New England presently holds the sixth and final playoff spot in the East. Next weekend's match precedes the October international break, giving Sporting Kansas City a week off before finishing the 2016 regular season at Real Salt Lake on Oct. 16 and home to San Jose on Oct. 23.

2016 MLS Regular Season
Game 31 of 34
Avaya Stadium | San Jose, California
Attendance: 18,000
Weather: 74 degrees and sunny

Score 1 2 F
Sporting Kansas City (12-12-7, 43 pts) 1 1 2
San Jose Earthquakes (7-9-13, 34 pts) 1 0 0

Sporting Kansas City: Tim Melia; Saad Abdul-Salaam, Kevin Ellis, Nuno Coelho, Jimmy Medranda; Paulo Nagamura (Brad Davis 63), Soni Mustivar, Roger Espinoza (C); Benny Feilhaber, Dom Dwyer, Jacob Peterson (Ike Opara 76)
Subs Not Used: Alec Kann, Matt Besler, Seth Sinovic, Connor Hallisey, Diego Rubio

San Jose Earthquakes: David Bingham; Cordell Cato, Marvell Wynne, Victor Bernardez, Jordan Stewart (Shaun Francis 33); Alberto Quintero (Tommy Thompson 80), Fatai Alashe, Darwin Ceren; Simon Dawkins, Chris Wondolowski, Quincy Amarikwa (Henok Goitom 4)
Subs Not Used: Andrew Tarbell, Andres Imperiale, Shea Salinas, Chad Barrett

Stats SKC SJ
Shots 6 16
Shots on Goal 2 4
Saves 3 0
Fouls 19 17
Offside 0 3
Corner Kicks 1 9

Misconduct Summary:
SKC -- Paulo Nagamura (caution; unsporting behavior) 52
SJ -- Darwin Ceren (caution; unsporting behavior) 57
SKC -- Roger Espinoza (caution; unsporting behavior) 64
SJ -- Henok Goitom (caution; unsporting behavior) 80
SKC -- Tim Melia (caution; time wasting) 57

Scoring Summary:
SKC -- Dom Dwyer 15 (Paulo Nagamura 1, Benny Feilhaber 10) 7
SJ -- Simon Dawkins 4 (Henok Goitom 1, Victor Bernardez 1) 42
SKC -- Kevin Ellis 1 (Ike Opara 3, Benny Feilhaber 11) 81