On a bright afternoon Sunday, in the waning seconds before the opening whistle, Sporting Kansas City veteran Jacob Peterson huddled with his teammates — a group composed of almost exclusively backups who would be pitted against one of the best clubs in the Western Conference for the next 90 minutes.
The unheralded lineup — featuring none of Sporting KC’s top-eight paid players — reflected the club’s preference to rest a bulk of its starters before visiting Philadelphia in three days for the U.S. Open Cup championship.
And Peterson didn’t sugarcoat the situation in the pregame huddle.
“There’s nobody who thinks we can play with these guys,” he said to his teammates.
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And then they did exactly that.
Five minutes after entering the match, Dom Dwyer provided a late second-half goal to help Sporting KC earn a 1-1 draw with the Seattle Sounders in front of a crowd of 19,496 fans Sunday at Sporting Park.
Sporting KC has still won only once in its last eight matches — but it picked up a crucial point in a tightening Western Conference playoff race. And it did it while fielding a starting lineup that included six players who are 22 years old or younger.
“You talk all year long, and you always say that you need every guy on the roster,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said. “We’ve played every guy on the roster, but tonight there was a big difference in what the lineup was. And those guys got a real feeling that they have a major impact on what the season looks like.”
At a critical juncture, no less. Seattle and Sporting KC occupy the fourth and fifth playoff spots, respectively, in the Western Conference, with one month left in the regular season. The top six teams will make the postseason.
Dwyer offered Sporting KC a little breathing room in the playoff picture. At least for now. He entered the match in the 74th minute, drawing a standing ovation from the crowd and almost immediately invigorating the offensive attack. It took him only 5 minutes to find the back of the net, when he slid to get his foot on the other end of an Amadou Dia crossing pass for his 11th goal of the season.
That countered a 32nd-minute score from Seattle forward Obafemi Martins, who tallied his team-best 14th goal of the season for the 1-0 advantage — a lead Seattle seemed content to hold.
“Every time you see Dom coming in and the crowd reacts like that, it just gets you even more hyped,” Dia said. “Just seeing him on the field gave us a lot more energy.”
The goal helped, too. Sporting KC pressed forward and nearly found the game-winner in extra time, though only after Seattle forward Clint Dempsey sent his own game-winning chance awry. Dwyer fired a low line-drive on goal before Seattle keeper Stefan Frei pushed back the shot, and Sporting KC midfielder Mikey Lopez nearly deflected the rebound attempt across the line.
After the final whistle, several Sporting KC players, visibly exhausted, collapsed to the field — Peterson among them.
“We wanted the win,” Peterson said. “We knew we had to outwork them if we wanted points. I think everybody left everything out there. We would’ve loved to have come away with three points, but given the circumstances, we’re happy with one point, and now we can turn all of our focus to the Open Cup final.”
Sporting Kansas City 1
SEATTLE: Stefan Frei, Zach Scott, Tyrone Mears, Gonzalo Pineda, Osvaldo Alonso (Erik Friberg, 73rd), Brad Evans, Oniel Fisher, Nelson Valdez (Lamar Neagle, 84th), Clint Dempsey, Andreas Ivanschitz (Marco Pappa, 64th), Obafemi Martins.
KANSAS CITY: Jon Kempin, Kevin Ellis, Erik Palmer-Brown, Amadou Dia, Jalil Anibaba (Saad Abdul-Salaam, 66th), Connor Hallisey, Jordi Quintilla, Bernardo Anor (Dom Dwyer, 74th), Paulo Nagamura (Soni Mustivar, 46th), Mikey Lopez, Jacob Peterson.
Seattle: 1, Martins 14 (Pineda), 32nd minute. Kansas City: 2, Dwyer 11 (Dia, Peterson), 79th.
Shots on goal
Seattle: Alonso (unsporting behavior), 44th. Kansas City: Nagamura (unsporting behavior), 35th; Palmer-Brown (unsporting behavior), 82nd.
Kansas City: x
Referee: Armando Villarreal
Assistant referee: Corey Parker
Assistant referee: Matthew Nelson
4th official: Marcos de Oliveira
Announced attendance: 19,496.