Sporting KC

Sporting KC shuts out Houston, builds first three-game winning streak of the season

During the middle of a long-lasting slump, Sporting Kansas City coach Peter Vermes remarked that among its effects, it left his players forgetting how good they could be. Forgetting what they had accomplished in the first six weeks of the season.

In a must-have-it homestand, Sporting KC is finally finding some reminders.

Sporting KC completed a three-game stretch at Children’s Mercy Park without a blemish, finishing it off with a 1-0 victory on Saturday against the visiting Houston Dynamo.

Johnny Russell scored the lone goal in the 12th minute, and goalkeeper Tim Melia withstood five shots on goal for the club’s first three-game winning streak of the season.

“I think when you go through the ups and downs that we’ve gone through, you can lose a little bit of that belief. The last couple weeks, we’ve been getting that back,” Sporting captain Matt Besler said. “I think we proved it to ourselves first and foremost.”

Suddenly, in late August, Sporting KC appears to have discovered something of a groove. Appears to be inching closer to its early-season form.

But will it be too late?

Sporting KC (10-11-7) remained four points behind San Jose for the seventh and final playoff spot in the Western Conference, with the Earthquakes playong late Saturday. And nobody above the Western Conference playoff line has been particularly interested in dropping points this month, complicating Sporting’s chase.

Six games remain.

“We know what we’re capable of, but we haven’t shown it, and now we are,” goalkeeper Melia said. “But we have a long way to go. We have to win the majority of our games to get into the playoffs. We’re all aware of that. We’re capable of the challenge.”

In the things it can control, Sporting KC continued a string of its most consistent soccer since March. In performance. In results. And in lineup, too. Coach Peter Vermes opted for the same starting group for a third straight match, going all-in on the if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it method. “We got a result. Why would I change it?” he said.

In its previous two victories against San Jose and Minnesota, Sporting scored late goals to flip a result — goals that potentially kept their playoff hunt alive, even if not a favorable position.

On Saturday, they implemented a different formula.

Score early. Hang on late.

Russell opened the scoring in the 12th minute, two minutes shy of the earliest goal in a match for Sporting KC this year. Russell’s ninth goal of the season derived from a header that he tucked inside the far post and into the side netting. Well, actually it derived initially from center back Graham Smith taking on a defender and sending a ball across the box to Russell. In his second MLS season, playing sporadically, Smith notched his first career assist.

Smith is also part of a back line that produced consecutive shutouts in front of goalkeeper Melia, pairing with Besler in the center and flanked by Graham Zusi and newcomer Luis Martins on the outside.

He was bailed out once, when Sporting KC midfielder Felipe Gutierrez picked up a yellow card in the 47th minute, covering for Smith’s giveaway in the middle of the field. That will trigger a one-game suspension. Gutierrez could potentially join the Chile men’s national team next week. A suspension would wait for his return.

But Vermes pointed to the play as an example for not letting one mistake turn into a series of more of them. Instead, the defense was mostly stable otherwise.

“Our experience in games that are really important is what’s coming to the forefront at the moment,” Vermes said. “I think that’s probably the essence of how we’re being more disciplined, more organized, more concentrated and also (why) we’re standing face to face with what we have to do. We have a lot of games to play and a lot of points (to make up) in the table. We gotta keep clawing our way up there.”

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