With their backs against the wall amidst an ever-intensifying playoff chase, Sporting Kansas City delivered yet again on Saturday night. Johnny Russell’s 12th-minute header off a feed from center back Graham Smith stood as the lone goal in a hard-earned 1-0 victory over rivals Houston Dynamo.
With fellow postseason contenders San Jose Earthquakes, FC Dallas and Portland Timbers all securing wins Saturday, it was imperative that Manager Peter Vermes’ men claimed three points of their own to keep within striking distance if the seventh and final playoff spot in the remarkably crowded Western Conference standings. Consider that mission accomplished as Sporting concluded a perfect homestand before a sellout crowd at Children’s Mercy Park.
In a season of ups and downs—marred throughout the spring and summer by an unprecedented slew of injuries—Sporting’s momentum has reached levels not seen since the club’s historic trouncing of Deportivo Toluca in the Concacaf Champions League Round of 16. And although the road ahead won’t be easy—the club plays four of its final six matches on the road against clubs above them in the standings—consecutive clean sheets and three triumphs on the trot can only bode well as the side prepares for a gargantuan clash at Portland next Saturday.
“We still have a long way to go but we’re on the right track,” goalkeeper Tim Melia said after the match. “We’re winning at home. We’re being really difficult to break down.
“The big difference is that we just have more confidence,” he continued. “It was never a doubt if we were good or if the team was talented. But right now, we’re in a good (mindset), and we need to keep going because we need to win quite a few more games to get into the playoffs.”
Count Melia among the biggest contributors in Saturday’s win, as the 2017 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year made five saves—including a massive stop to deny Houston’s Alberth Elis on the breakaway just before halftime—en route to his sixth shutout of the MLS campaign. The 45th regular season shutout of his Sporting career moved Melia into a tie with longtime captain Jimmy Nielsen for the most in team history.
SPORTING KC: ALL-TIME LEADERS IN REGULAR SEASON SHUTOUTS
|Shutouts||Player||Games||Years in KC|
“For as long as I’ve been here and before that, Tim has been so big for us,” Russell said postgame. “He makes some incredible saves. The guys along the backline have been great in front of him as well to limit their chances. Still a few more than we would like, but when you’ve got a goalkeeper like Tim back there, you always feel a little bit safe even if someone is one-on-one with him.”
Melia wasn’t the only grizzled veteran to hit a major milestone on Saturday. Further up the pitch, midfielder Roger Espinoza started his 250th match for Sporting in all competitions, joining elite company among four other Kansas City players.
Espinoza, whose 250th start came in his 276th competitive appearance, enters rarefied air alongside teammates Matt Besler and Graham Zusi as well as current assistant coach Kerry Zavagnin and Kansas City resident Nick Garcia.
SPORTING KC: ALL-TIME LEADERS IN STARTS (ALL COMPETITIONS)
|Starts||Player||Appearances||Years in KC|
|250||Roger Espinoza||276||2008-2012; 2015-present|
While Sporting celebrated a big win, the 10th-place Dynamo were left to rue the fact that their postseason hopes appear all but over. The result comes at the expense of interim head coach Davy Arnaud, the former Kansas City great who amassed 52 goals and 40 assists in 273 matches for the club from 2002-2011.
Arnaud becomes the fourth former Kansas City player to then face Sporting as the head coach of an opposing team. The other three on the list include Sporting Legends Preki and Mo Johnston as well as Brian Bliss, Sporting’s current Technical Director and Vice President of Player Personnel.
As the table below illustrates, Sporting are now 8-3-4 in regular season matches against opponents coached by former Kansas City players.
SPORTING KC vs. OPPONENTS COACHED BY FORMER KC PLAYERS
(MLS REGULAR SEASON, ALL-TIME)
|Coach||Opponent||Seasons||Record vs. SKC|
|Mo Johnston||New York Red Bulls
|Brian Bliss||Columbus Crew SC||2013||0-2-0|
|Davy Arnaud||Houston Dynamo||2019||0-1-0|
Sporting will now begin preparations for another pivotal Western Conference encounter in the Pacific Northwest. Kickoff against the Timbers next Saturday is slated for 9:30 p.m. CT with live coverage on FOX Sports Kansas City, FOX Sports Midwest Plus and FOX Sports GO.
The visitors will like their chances in Portland if they can keep a dynamic Timbers attack at bay. And if past history is any indication, Melia knows precisely what it will take: in four regular season appearances at Providence Park, the Sporting goalkeeper has yet to concede a single goal.
On a related note, Sporting has prevailed in each of the last 12 regular season matches Melia has kept a clean sheet—a streak that began with a 1-0 win at Houston on Aug. 4, 2018.
“Portland is a really difficult place,” Melia said. “It’s a place we’ve had a little bit of success when we’ve gone there, but they’re in the same position as us. They’re trying to get above the last place in the playoffs.
“We’ve got to grind. It’s going to be an absolute grind. It’s going to be a great environment with the new (expansion) to their stadium. Those are the types of atmospheres we want to play in and we’re looking forward to it.”