The final whistle produced a collective collapse inside MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus. Sporting Kansas City forward Gerso Fernandes fell completely to his knees. Daniel Salloi, Krisztian Nemeth and Seth Sinovic tiredly raised their arms in the air before hunching over. In the backdrop, a couple of teammates embraced with a hug.
Celebration? Nah. This was pure relief. Pure trademark signs of recognition for a long, long wait.
Sporting KC sidestepped a disjointed opening half and grabbed a 1-0 victory Sunday in Ohio, its first win outside of Children’s Mercy Park in an MLS season nearly four months old.
“We’ve been fighting for this for awhile,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said in a phone interview after the match. “We’re trying to get back to this place — where we can get a win, get a shutout and get points on the road. We’ve been in some situations, and we know that we’ve given away points. Today is building block.”
The length of Sporting KC’s plummet stands as its most striking element, but on Sunday afternoon, it added a defining sequence, a burn-the-film opening 45 minutes in which they did just about nothing right.
And wouldn’t you know it, the long-awaited breakthrough followed. Just three minutes after a halftime speech in which Peter Vermes instructed his team to play in a more direct fashion, Felipe Gutierrez got on the other end of a Gerso Fernandes cross for the lone goal of the game.
Suddenly, in the aftermath of a 10-week slump, Sporting KC (4-5-7) moved within just one point of the playoff line in the Western Conference, securing points in three straight road matches. Unlike its predecessor, in which a final-minute goal turned a victory into a tie in Toronto, Sporting closed out with the full three points.
“I thought how we were competing at the very end — especially with going after the long balls over the top and staying balanced playing out of the back — was really good,” said goalkeeper Tim Melia, who made four saves, including a couple hard-hit strikes. “Those are the types of things that win games and close out games that we haven’t been doing lately. But hopefully it’s a step in the right direction.”
That was the picture late. Not early. Sporting KC compiled a first half defined by a lack of cohesion and the plethora of giveaways on the back end that kept Melia busy. Add to that, the front line botched a pair of enticing scoring chances, failing to even register a shot on goal in odd-man breaks.
And, yet, this result: Sporting grabbed just its second victory since March 30, finishing it off with a man advantage after Harrison Afful received an early exit in the 75th minute. Columbus already played shorthanded, absent three United States men’s national players who will visit Kansas City on Wednesday when the Americans play in the Gold Cup.
Fernandes’ individual effort in the 48th minute changed the game. He rescued a ball from the end line that seemed destined to track out of bounds, then flicked a ball between a defender’s legs before shifting the pass to Gutierrez. He has seven goals this season, the third Sporting player to reach that mark.
“We played a lot more direct in the second half,” Vermes said. “In the first half, we were just knocking the ball around. We weren’t being effective going forward because we kept going backward.”