Sporting KC

Sporting KC inches closer to playoff line with late goal against Minnesota

Seven days ago, before they walked onto the practice field, Sporting Kansas City players met as a group inside a classroom at Pinnacle. They aired out some frustrations from a long season, but mostly they focused on the final six weeks. They talked about pride. Talked about responsibility.

And urgency.

At long last, Sporting KC is playing with the latter. And it just might creep back into the playoff race because of it.

For the second straight outing, Sporting scored a late goal, Erik Hurtado’s 88th minute tally lifting the club to a 1-0 victory Thursday against Minnesota United.

“You see a little different mentality from the entire group these past couple of games,” defender Graham Zusi said.

“We were relentless tonight,” Sporting coach Peter Vermes said. “That’s why we scored in the 88th minute — because we weren’t going to be denied.”

Sporting KC (9-11-7) moved within three points of the seventh and final playoff spot in the Western Conference, and it spoiled the much-anticipated return of its former center back Ike Opara. Seven games remain.

With every match of a three-game homestand absorbing the feeling of a must-win, Sporting played on the front foot only to see failure in the final third.

Hurtado finally broke through, his first goal inside Children’s Mercy Park in a Sporting uniform. He received a ball from Johnny Russell, took a touch to his right that drew out keeper Vito Mannone and slid a shot into the open net.

“My speed’s going to get behind the defense every time — I just gotta be composed in front of the goal,” Hurtado said. “I spoke to myself when (Russell) played the ball. I was like, ‘Stay composed; relax.’ And I did.”

Ten minutes before kickoff Thursday, Ike Opara and Matt Besler walked side by side through the interior of the stadium, emerging through the midfield tunnel. For years, they paired to form one of the league’s best defenses, the spine of Sporting’s back line.

For a few seconds, as they led their team’s onto the field, the picture offered a reminder of what once was.

The next 90 minutes did, too — Sporting KC recorded its first shutout in seven matches.

Opara, who played in Kansas City for six seasons before a January trade dealt him to Minnesota, greeted former teammates during pregame warmups. He served as Minnesota’s captain on Thursday. He stayed on the field after the game for conversations with others and exchanged his jersey with veteran midfielder Roger Espinoza ... at halftime. He traded the one he wore in the second half with Graham Zusi.

Asked if anything about his return surprised him, Opara replied, “Just how difficult it is emotionally being on the other side of the locker room. Coming in here trying to get a result is never easy. It’s a different perspective — being an away team here was an awakening a bit.”

When healthy, Opara during his time with Sporting aided Sporting’s top defense and in 2017 won the league’s defensive player of the year award.

Minnesota sits in second place in the Western Conference and will play for the U.S. Open Cup championship Tuesday. The club rested a couple of players in the first half, likely to prepare for that match.

But Opara was offered the chance to play against former teammates.

Sporting stole the win in the final minutes.

“You could see them trying to run their mouth a little bit or make jokes with me,” Opara said. “I was just trying to stay locked in and (not) lose yourself in the friendship. It’s definitely not easy. I wanted to win. Unfortunately it wasn’t meant to be.”

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