The initial frame of the highlight showed Sporting Kansas City forward Latif Blessing taking on three Houston defenders by his lonesome. For a few seconds, it continued like this, until teammate Gerso Fernandes blitzed into the picture, sprinting down the opposite side of the field.
Blessing caught the run out of the corner of his eye, skidded a pass along the grass and watched as Fernandes used only one touch to re-direct the ball into the net. The goal sealed a victory against Houston on Wednesday, clinching Sporting KC a spot in the U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals.
But it was significant to coach Peter Vermes for a different reason — the execution of a play he has been underlining for the past few weeks.
“I’ve been telling the team that when we get up a goal and the other team starts pressing forward, we can hit them on the counter and kill the game,” Vermes said. “We’ve got to have that killer instinct.”
That was the objective all along, way back when Sporting KC redesigned its offense in the offseason. The club targeted speed. While that has put pressure on defenses throughout the run of play, in theory it should be a greater weapon late in games.
As Sporting KC is protecting leads, it should have the chance to build on them, too. And that forces opponents into a decision they didn’t necessarily have to make when playing against Sporting KC last year — push all numbers forward in an effort to find an equalizer, or hold a couple of defenders back to protect against the counter attack?
“We have the speed to stretch the other team out. They have to respect that,” Vermes said. “When you got a guy like Gerso running, I think it’s going to put anybody on notice. You better be ready, because these guys can fly.”
Indeed, Fernandes has often been the beneficiary of the improved counter in Kansas City. A ball from defensive midfielder Ilie Sanchez set him up for one of the team’s best goals of the year earlier this month.
But the specific emphasis inside the Sporting KC locker room recently has narrowed to late-game situations. More specifically, the refusal to find comfort in a one-goal lead. Vermes has harped on it with Fernandes especially.
Fernandes is still learning to adopt the mind-set of a goal scorer. Before arriving Kansas City this season, he had never totaled more than five goals in a single year. He has eight with Sporting KC this season — six in MLS play and two in the Open Cup tournament.
“The way we play gives me more opportunities to score,” Fernandes said. “It’s the way it works here.”
The hope is for for Wednesday’s implementation to spark a trend.
It’s a particularly vital weapon for Sporting KC to adopt at home. In 2016, the club allowed a pair of would-be victories to turn into draws inside Children’s Mercy Park. In the end, it was the difference between hosting a first-round playoff game and traveling to Seattle.
“Every little thing, every roll of the ball is huge,” Vermes said. “Nobody recognizes that more than we do.”