The American soccer career of Latif Blessing had spanned four months, but it included only 36 minutes on the field. Sporting Kansas City coach Peter Vermes had voiced the need for patience for a 20-year-old Ghanaian forward integrating into a new culture.
Blessing bucked that notion Saturday.
After a suspension to forward Dom Dwyer pushed Blessing into the starting lineup for the first time in his career, Blessing responded with his first two MLS goals, helping Sporting KC grab a 2-2 draw at Orlando City SC.
Sporting Kansas City (5-2-4), which moved back into a first-place tie in the Western Conference, is the first visiting club to earn a point inside Orlando City Stadium, which had previously housed five wins for the home Lions.
“To come in and do what he did, I think it’s pretty special,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said in a phone interview after the match.
In an engaging, wide-open game chock-full of opportunities for each side, Blessing supplied Sporting KC a promising start before salvaging the conclusion.
“He gave us everything he had,” Vermes said of Blessing.
Blessing joined Sporting KC in the offseason after having garnered most valuable player honors in the Ghana Premier League as a teenager. The blend into the Sporting KC system required a predictable learning curve, and with the coaching staff determining Blessing’s best position was center forward, it didn’t allow for much playing time. Dwyer had started every game there this season before Saturday, when he served a one-game suspension for yellow-card accumulation.
Yet only nine minutes into his first start stateside, Blessing celebrated his first MLS goal, directing a close-range shot into the net after a deflection. He tapped in his second in the 74th minute, pulling Sporting KC even at 2-2 after back-to-back Orlando City goals in the first half had given the Lions the advantage.
Blessing is the fourth youngest player in franchise history to score.
“A lot of the decisions he makes are based on his instincts and what he feels,” Vermes said. “That’s why he scores both goals. Those were instincts. He knows where to go and where to be.”
Blessing’s eventful evening — interrupted by Orlando City goals from striker Cyle Larin and midfielder Kaka in the first half — finished with his removal in the 82nd minute. Three minutes earlier, he was booked for a dive, which prompted Orlando City SC goalkeeper Joe Bendik to stand over him and scream at him to stand up, a profanity laced in the middle of it.
The damage was done.
“I know the focus will be the goals, and we needed him to score goals. But there were other things he did in the game,” Vermes said. “I thought he worked really hard. I thought he was dangerous. I thought he was good at keeping the ball for us. He gave us everything. I commend him for that.”