Recap: Johnny Russell's early header propels Sporting to 1-0 win over Houston Dynamo

Johnny Russell’s first-half header propelled Sporting Kansas City (10-11-7, 37 points) to a crucial 1-0 victory over rivals Houston Dynamo (9-15-4, 31 points) on Saturday night at Children’s Mercy Park. The result gives ninth-place Sporting their first three-game winning streak of 2019 and keeps the club within striking distance of the seventh and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Goalkeeper Tim Melia made five saves en route to his 45th career regular season shutout—tying Jimmy Nielsen for the most in team history—as the hosts claimed a momentous win in the bid for a ninth consecutive postseason berth while stretching Houston’s winless skid to seven matches.

Sporting Manager Peter Vermes fielded an unchanged lineup from last week’s 2-1 defeat of Minnesota United FC, awarding veteran midfielder Roger Espinoza his 250th career start for the club in all competitions. Gerso Fernandes later entered as a second-half substitute, becoming the 44th player to log 100 appearances in a Sporting uniform.

The hosts wasted little time dictating tempo and landed the first punch on 12 minutes when Russell nodded home his ninth goal of the MLS campaign. The Scottish international’s free kick into a crowded penalty area was cleared only as far as Felipe Gutierrez, who clipped a lovely ball over the top for Graham Smith to chase near the endline. The center back sent an inch-perfect delivery back across the face of goal for Russell to head past Houston goalkeeper Joe Willis, queuing celebrations across the stadium as Smith recorded his first MLS assist.

Russell was the dangerman once more in the 19th minute, finding Graham Zusi on the overlap along the right channel. His low-driven pass found Daniel Salloi on the doorstep, but the forward’s first-time effort caromed off the top of the crossbar and out of play.

Melia was called into action twice on the half-hour mark as Houston gradually gained a foothold of their own. He dropped low to palm away a Memo Rodriguez strike from the left corner of the box before reacting quickly at the near post to parry Alberth Elis’ deflected cross behind for a corner kick.

Salloi threatened again in the 34th minute, catching Russell’s free kick cleanly on the volley and forcing Willis into a reflex stop. A gripping sequence then unfolded on the stroke of intermission as both sides went close to scoring. Sporting left back Luis Martins nearly caught Willis out of positions with a searching ball from the wing, but the goalkeeper secured possession and picked out Elis with a booming punt downfield. Elis surged goalward pulled the trigger on the breakaway, but Melia produced a fine save to keep his clean sheet intact.

The visitors improved in the second half but lacked the requisite incision to break down Sporting’s defense. Vermes’ men remained dangerous in spurts as well, and Willis did well to thwart Erik Hurtado after Russell had skipped past Kiki Struna and Maynor Figueroa before neatly laying it off to his teammate.

Houston thought it had conjured an equalizer in the 73rd minute when Elis dashed down the right channel and squared to Christian Ramirez for a point-blank finish, but the offside flag had been raised on Elis.

The final half-hour of an increasingly cagey match saw referee Alan Kelly brandish four Houston yellow cards as a few egregious challenges popped up across the pitch. Sporting ultimately held their slim advantage to the final whistle, leaving the Dynamo’s playoff aspirations on life support.

Sporting will battle for a fourth straight triumph next Saturday when they travel to face the eighth-place Portland Timbers in yet another all-important Western Conference clash. Kickoff at Providence Park is slated for 9:30 p.m. CT with live coverage on FOX Sports Kansas City, FOX Sports Midwest Plus and FOX Sports GO.

2019 MLS Regular Season
Game 28 of 34

Children's Mercy Park | Kansas City, Kansas
Attendance: 18,917
Weather: 71 degrees and partly cloudy

Score 1 2 F
Sporting Kansas City (10-11-7, 37 points) 1 0 1
Houston Dynamo (9-14-4, 31 points) 0 0 0

Sporting Kansas City: Tim Melia; Graham Zusi, Graham Smith, Matt Besler (C), Luis Martins; Felipe Gutierrez, Benny Feilhaber (Jimmy Medranda 81'), Roger Espinoza (Ilie Sanchez 70'); Johnny Russell, Erik Hurtado, Daniel Salloi (Gerso Fernandes 70')
Subs Not Used: Eric Dick, Botond Barath, Seth Sinovic, Krisztian Nemeth

Houston Dynamo: Joe Willis; A.J. DeLaGarza (Kevin Garcia 69'), Kiki Struna, Maynor Figueroa, Adam Lundkvist; Matias Vera, Boniek Garcia (C); Alberth Elis, Memo Rodriguez (Tomas Martinez 59'), Tommy McNamara (Niko Hansen 81'); Christian Ramirez
Subs Not Used: Michael Nelson, DaMarcus Beasley, Juan Cabezas, Mauro Manotas

Scoring Summary:
SKC -- Johnny Russell 9 (Graham Smith 1, Felipe Gutierrez 3) 12'

Misconduct Summary:
SKC -- Felipe Gutierrez (yellow card; unsporting behavior) 47'
HOU -- Boniek Garcia (yellow card; dissent) 61'
HOU -- A.J. DeLaGarza (yellow card; dissent) 65'
HOU -- Matias Vera (yellow card; persistent infringement) 89'
HOU -- Maynor Figueroa (yellow card; unsporting behavior) 90+3'

Shots 12 12
Shots on Goal 5 5
Saves 5 4
Fouls 10 19
Offsides 0 2
Corner Kicks 9 3

Referee: Alan Kelly
Assistant Referee: Micheal Barwegen
Assistant Referee: Ian McKay
Fourth Official: Lukasz Szpala
VAR: Edvin Jurisevic
AVAR: T.J. Zablocki