Tucked into a cramped hallway in the underbelly of Sporting Park, a group of willing listeners surrounded Kevin Ellis as the 22-year-old tried to describe the highlight of his young career.
It was nearly an hour after Ellis scored his first professional goal — a well-timed strike that lifted Sporting Kansas City to a 1-0 victory Wednesday against Cruz Azul in the opening leg of their CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals series — when teammate Dom Dwyer interrupted the conversation.
Dwyer reached for his cell phone, then took a picture of the man who was suddenly the center of attention.
“Here,” Dwyer said. “You’ll want to remember this.”
That won’t be a problem.
With one swift kick Wednesday, Ellis, a graduate of Oak Park High School, put his hometown club in position to advance to the semifinals of the Champions League, a competition never won by an MLS team. The two teams will close out the aggregate series Wednesday at Cruz Azul.
“Easily one of the top moments of my career,” Ellis said. “So is getting (a win) for this team.”
A stingy effort from the Sporting KC defense made the 17th-minute goal hold up in front of a sellout crowd of 18,467 at Sporting Park. Goalkeeper Eric Kronberg notched his fourth shutout in five CCL matches, though he needed help from his back line in a dramatic sequence early into the second half.
Attempting to tie the game, Cruz Azul striker Mariano Pavone dribbled around Kronberg in the 55th minute, then shot toward an open goal, but Sporting KC defender Ike Opara raced back and negated the shot off the line. On the ensuing Cruz Azul corner kick, Seth Sinovic flicked another attempt off the line.
“His recovery to get to the goal line and not give up on the play when he could have, that was tremendous heart,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said of Opara. “It just shows the character of our group.”
Opara took advantage of a spot start with defender Aurelien Collin sitting out with yellow card accumulation.
Ellis seized his moment, too.
His opportunities as a professional have been rare, but Ellis found himself in the starting lineup for the fourth time of his career with Chance Myers sitting out with a right groin strain. Ellis made the chance count with a 17th-minute goal. Claudio Bieler was credited with the assist.
“Claudio hit a world-class ball with the outside of his right foot. I just took a touch, put my head down, took another touch and just hit it and hoped it went in,” Ellis said. “And it did.”
A memorable goal, indeed.
“It’s obviously a good story for our organization being the fact that he’s a homegrown player,” Vermes said. “He comes into a very special moment in our club’s history and finds himself with a goal, as well as playing a good game. It’s a good step in the right direction for him.”
Ellis supplied the only score, but it wasn’t for a lack of action. A chippy contest included six yellow cards.
It nearly included more scoring, as well.
Sporting KC forward Graham Zusi fired a bullet that hit the crossbar in the 64th minute. Bieler came within a couple of feet of adding to the lead to close out the first half. He made a quick move on the Cruz Azul defense, then sliced a shot back toward the right post, but goalkeeper Jesus Corona tipped the shot wide of the goal.
Either chance would have provided Sporting KC with some added breathing room heading into Mexico City next week.
“I expect them to come out and throw everything at us,” Vermes said. “They’re not going to go down without a major fight. We’re going to have to be prepared for everything.”