Sporting KC

Johnny Russell scores a late beauty, helping Sporting KC tie Colorado

Sporting Kansas City forward Johnny Russell is the fourth player in team history to reach double digits in both goals and assists in the same season.
Sporting Kansas City forward Johnny Russell is the fourth player in team history to reach double digits in both goals and assists in the same season. Special to the Star

The opening night of the MLS season was defined by the opportunity Sporting Kansas City had squandered. A late goal robbed the club of a valuable point on the road.

On Sunday, they got it back.

Just two weeks later, Johnny Russell ripped a free kick into the back of the net in the 88th minute, helping Sporting KC secure a late 1-1 draw with the Colorado Rapids in Commerce City, Colo.

Russell spoiled an evening previously reserved for Diego Rubio, a former Sporting KC striker who scored the game’s opening goal for Colorado in the 54th minute.

“Great finish,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said in a phone interview. “It’s important that we score a free kick like that because we haven’t scored a lot of those for a long time. We get a lot of chances. We need to score some more of those.”

This was a fine start.

Russell and Graham Zusi each stood over the ball momentarily before Russell talked his way into unleashing the left-footed 25-yard strike. Moments earlier, Colorado’s Johan Blomberg was ejected for a second yellow card.

The number of men on the field had little impact. Russell sent a curler into the upper 90, leaving no chance for Rapids keeper Tim Howard. Russell, who did not start the match, scored his first goal this year after tallying 10 of them in his first MLS season in 2018. It supplied Sporting KC a point just three days after an emotional victory to qualify for the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals.

“It was a big game Thursday night from every perspective — physically, emotionally — but I think the guys were fine,” Vermes said. “If you wanna be a top-level team, you have to be able to play three games in a week. You have to be able to do it. It’s part of the business.”

Rubio had all the headlines beforehand. His anticipation keyed the first goal, and throughout his tenure in Kansas City, he was commended for his instincts. It was one of the qualities that prompted Sporting KC to bring him to MLS.

But it bit them late Sunday, much to Rubio’s delight.

In his first game against Sporting KC since the club traded him over the winter, Rubio poached a miscue from goalkeeper Tim Melia, stole a ball and directed it into the back of the net.

“Just a mistake,” Vermes said.

Rubio spent the first three years of his MLS career with Sporting KC. He scored eight goals in just 781 minutes in 2018, the best ratio in the league. But the club wanted to open up minutes for striker Krisztian Nemeth this year, and in turn it dealt Rubio to Colorado as part of a three-team trade.

Just two weeks into the MLS season, the scheduled granted Rubio an opportunity against his former teammates. Quiet early. Loud on one particular play. Sporting captain Matt Besler sent a pass backward to Melia, whose first touch failed him. From Melia’s blind side, Rubio broke immediately after the pass and took advantage of the heavy touch. It’s his first goal with the Rapids.

In a schedule front-loaded with a gluttony of games, Sporting KC will finally take something of a breather over the next couple of weeks. Much-needed, too. Sporting KC (1-1-1) has played seven matches in the first 25 days of the season and six in the past 18.

Sporting KC has spent the first month of its schedule cycling back and forth between the Champions League and the MLS regular season. On Thursday, it secured a spot in the CCL semifinals with a series victory against Panama-side Independiente.

It’s a significant accomplishment for a club that has not reached this level in the modern era of the tournament, but it’s demanded heavy minutes early in the season, with little break.

Until this week.

Sporting KC will not play again until it hosts Montreal on March 30 at Children’s Mercy Park. On the other hand, four Sporting KC players have been called into senior national team duty during the break — Johnny Russell (Scotland), Krisztian Nemeth (Hungary), Botond Barath (Hungary) and Abdul Rwatubyaye (Rwanda).

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