The deficit spanned more than 80 minutes. Although Sporting Kansas City coach Peter Vermes later said he knew his club would secure a game-tying goal last weekend, it required his intervention. The time dwindling, he turned to a bevy of potential substitutes warming up in the southwest corner of the stadium and motioned for Diego Rubio and Khiry Shelton.
It was an obvious reminder of his winter priorities. One year earlier, Vermes could not find a way to change the momentum of a shutout playoff loss in Houston. Within days, he vocalized the need to supplement his bench with players capable of altering a match.
On Saturday, Rubio and Shelton did just that. Rubio scored the game-tying goal just 23 seconds after entering the game against Houston, and Shelton added the game-winner three minutes later, driving Sporting KC into first place in the Western Conference.
“It’s something that we worked on in the offseason — we wanted to make sure we had more in our team off the bench,” Vermes said. “We were able to bring in players that could change the outcome of the game by their impact.”
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More accurately, the club added starters across its front line and midfield, pushing a handful of last season’s regulars to the bench. Gerso Fernandes, who led the 2017 club in scoring, has made 10 of his 13 appearances this season in a reserve role.
The impact has been quantifiable. Sporting KC broke a club record Saturday with its eighth MLS goal scored by a substitute this year. It had only three in all of 2017.
The significance: How about the record? Sporting KC is 6-0-1 when a substitute scores a goal. It is 3-2-4 in matches that do not include a goal from a player entering the match off the bench.
Five of the eight substitute goals have directly changed the outcome of a match — either turning a loss into a draw or turning a draw into a victory. On a team that has fallen one point shy of hosting a home playoff match in three straight seasons, it’s a rather noteworthy contribution.
“When you come into a match, you just try to change things in any way you can,” Shelton said. “I just try to be a beast. Those are the instructions I’m given. That’s what I try to do every time I come in.”
Sporting KC, which heads to Montreal on Saturday, is on pace for 17 goals from reserves this season, which would be one shy of the MLS record of 18, established by Colorado in 1998. No other team in the league has more than five this year.
And no player on Sporting KC’s roster has been a better weapon in the role than Rubio. Disappointed in his absence from starting lineups, he has made the most of his stints late in matches. He has three goals off the bench on three shot attempts, two of them tying a match in the final five minutes.
Shelton, Fernandes, Wan Kuzain, Cristian Lobato and Jimmy Medranda have one each.
“Sometimes you don’t even think (much) when you’re going in,” Rubio said. “You just try to get a lot of people up there (in the attack) and see what can happen. I just want to go in the game and try to do my best and show that I can score.”