Sporting Kansas City threw substantial resources toward its preparation of the opening weeks of the year, complete with its players spending nights in altitude tents and cutting short their offseasons. To be sure, they handled it admirably.
It’s the aftermath that proved the greater challenge.
Three days after a trip to Mexico, Sporting KC allowed Los Angeles FC forward Adama Diomande to strike at the final whistle, the game-winner in a 2-1 result Sunday night on the West Coast.
“You work so hard all that time,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said. “But I think we were a little lax there in the last couple minutes of the game.”
A meeting between two of the presumed top contenders in the Western Conference lived up to its billing on MLS opening weekend. But a Sporting KC club that had the early energy on the road, the first goal and plenty of the ball ultimately gave way to signs of a team that played in Mexican altitude just three days earlier.
Even so, Sporting KC seemingly fought to hold on to the even scoreline before Diomande squeezed into the edge of the box and blasted a top-shelf shot in the 94th minute. Sporting KC’s survival mode had shifted to the extreme in the 84th minute after Roger Espinoza received an early exit for a second yellow card.
While Sunday’s match served as the nationally televised finale of MLS opening weekend, it was in name only for Sporting Kansas City. The club commenced its season 11 days ago, already sweeping Toluca FC in a CONCACAF Champions League series. The second leg of that series required Sporting KC to play in 8,750 feet of altitude late Thursday.
Vermes opted to stick with the identical starting lineup that earned a result in both games of the series. Asked how that played a factor Sunday, he said, “I don’t think today’s result had anything to do with fatigue or anything like that. No, not at all. I think they’re a good team. Give them credit for that. We were just about there, but we didn’t do it all the way through the end.”
Krisztian Nemeth supplied the opening goal in the 16th minute. Eleven days into the season, he has scored three times in three games — more than he had in the previous 18 months. The sequence was ignited when a ball deflected off center referee Rogert Sibiga. Ilie Sanchez pounced and sent a pass to Johnny Russell, who deflected back to Nemeth.
It stood for a half.
Not for the game.
Rossi equalized just two minutes after the teams returned from the locker room, a superb individual effort in which he cut inside defender Graham Zusi and sent a shot to the far post just past the outstretched Tim Melia. It’s the first goal Melia had allowed in more than 220 minutes this season.
“The other team is driving the game. I think that’s always going to be the case when you play away from home,” Vermes said of the shift in momentum. “They were putting a lot of numbers forward. They were trying to get back into the game.”
A day after securing the series in Toluca on Thursday, Sporting KC hopped on a plane for a four-hour flight to Los Angeles. It trained on a beach later that afternoon. In all, it had only one day of true preparation for LAFC.
Vermes said the club’s training staff spent those days monitoring the players and their ability to play another match Sunday. They all received the go-ahead.
But one of them didn’t finish it. Sporting KC center back Andreu Fontas left during the second half with an apparent injury. Botond Barath replaced him, marking his Sporting KC and MLS debut.
The cycle reverts back to the CONCACAF Champions League on Wednesday when Sporting KC travels to Panama to face CA Independiente in the tournament quarterfinals. The two-game series will conclude in Kansas City the following week. Between the two legs of the series, Sporting KC plays host to Philadelphia on March 10 in an MLS match.