Just when Sporting Kansas City needed its top players to step up, they were nowhere to be found on the field. Literally.
There’s no denying international call-ups hinder MLS teams, with the best players in the league jetting off for duty elsewher, but there may be no team in the MLS that’s been hit harder than Sporting KC.
In a game between two teams vying for a playoff spot in a tight Western Conference, Sporting Kansas City fell to Portland 2-1 at Portland’s Providence Park Saturday night.
A pair of late goals — including a 94th-minute stoppage-time winner — doomed Sporting KC.
“We did more than enough to get out of here with at least a point,” Sporting Kansas City coach Peter Vermes said. “Obviously we didn’t do enough to get out of here with three points, which we should have, because we had the game.
“We made a silly blunder on the first goal — we put ourselves in a bad situation; we put ourselves in that situation and they took advantage of it. Very disappointing walking out of here with nothing after that performance, very disappointing.”
It could have been a different story were Sporting KC not without its top three goalscorers: Felipe Gutierrez, Johnny Russell and Krisztian Nemeth were all unavailable, Russell and Nemeth due to international call-ups and Gutierrez due to a suspension.
With a total of 26 goals missing from the starting lineup, Sporting was left to field a lineup that has scored a combined nine goals this season. And how many of those goals have come from the front three? Three. Two from Erik Hurtado, one from Gerso Fernandes and zero from Daniel Salloi.
That trend could have been bucked against Portland in the 61st minute, when Portland goalkeeper Steve Clark parried the ball into Salloi’s lap from 8 yards out. All Salloi had to do was place the ball into the back of the net; instead, he looped it over the bar.
Hurtado also showed early promise in the opening minutes when he latched onto a through ball, but his shot was parried away by Portland goalkeeper Steve Clark. That would prove to be Sporting’s only shot on target in the first half.
Vermes’ men remained solid at the back. But going forward, Salloi and Fernandes were barely involved as the midfield was unable to connect to the front three. And when the Sporting wingers received the ball, they were unable to effectively connect with a stranded Hurtado.
From that point on, Kansas City was unable to gain any meaningful possession as Portland piled on the pressure. The talking point of the half came when Portland was awarded a penalty in just the ninth minute. A shot cannoned of Luis Martins’ arm, but a review of the play deemed that Martins’ arm was in a tucked-in, natural position, and the penalty was withdrawn.
The trend of tough possessions continued for much of the second half, and Sporting may have not even scored if not for a moment of madness from Benny Feilhaber. After receiving the ball from Salloi at the corner of the box, Feilhaber whipped in a half-shot-half-cross that looped over the head of Clark and into the far right corner for his fourth goal of the season and a 1-0 Sporting lead.
With that slender advantage, Kansas City defended with 10 men behind the ball, but Portland finally broke through in the 83rd minute off a Sporting giveaway that resulted in Jeremy Ebobisse slotting home from close range to tie it at 1.
The Timbers put the game to bed in the 94th minute when Diego Valeri sent a chip to the back post to Brian Fernandez. From there, all Fernandez had to do was head the ball home from close range.
“We did a very good job (on defense), we didn’t give them a lot at all in the first half,” Vermes said. “For 80 minutes of the game we didn’t really give them that much — they tried, but we were very sound defensively. But at the end we just gave them too much.”
The result means Tim Melia must continue his wait for a clean sheet to claim the most by a goalkeeper in Kansas City history — he’s currently tied at 45 with Jimmy Nielsen.
Sporting Kansas City now sits five points behind the eighth-placed L.A. Galaxy, which holds a game in hand over Sporting in the Western Conference standings.