July 17, 2020) — Three second-half goals lifted Sporting Kansas City (3-1-0, 9 points) to a thrilling 3-2 comeback victory over the nine-man Colorado Rapids (2-2-0, 6 points) in a Friday night classic at the ESPN Wide World of Sports in Walt Disney World.
Facing a 1-0 halftime deficit after an early Kellyn Acosta strike, Sporting surged ahead with goals from in-form attackers Khiry Shelton and Alan Pulido. The shorthanded Rapids, who saw Danny Wilson and Jack Price receive straight red cards during the final half-hour, restored parity in the 84th minute through substitute Jonathan Lewis, but veteran defender Graham Zusi notched his first goal since April 2018 with 91 minutes on the clock to give Sporting a wild and much-needed win in the historic MLS is Back Tournament.
The pivotal result puts Sporting squarely in contention for a top-two finish in Group D going into Wednesday’s group stage finale against rivals Real Salt Lake. The top two teams in each of the tournament’s six groups, as well as the four best third-place finishers, will progress to the Knockout Stage presented by Audi.
With goalkeeper Tim Melia serving a red card suspension, 26-year-old Richard Sanchez stepped between the posts for his first Sporting Kansas City start and was called to action within two minutes, dropping low to smother Acosta’s long-range effort from beyond the penalty area. Not long later, however, Acosta would find the back of the net with a curling, left-footed belter near the top of the box to finish off an incisive Colorado move involving Diego Rubio, Nicolas Benezet and Cole Bassett.
Having conceded the opening goal for the first time this season, Sporting gradually gained a foothold and almost drew level at the 15-minute mark. Ilie’s clever ball into space was chased down by Khiry Shelton, who stormed down the right channel and into the box before seeing his near-post effort blocked by Colorado’s debutant goalkeeper William Yarbrough. On the ensuing corner kick, Shelton latched onto Johnny Russell’s in-swinging corner kick and put a shot on frame, but Price was stationed on the goal line to head clear and preserve his team’s lead.
Russell, who replaced Gerso Fernandes in Sporting’s starting XI, whipped another teasing corner into the mixer in the 25th minute that fell to Ilie Sanchez, whose bouncing volley deflected off Rubio — a former Sporting striker — and into the thankful mitts of Yarbrough.
An absolute rollercoaster of a second-half burst to life on the hour mark when Wilson wrapped both hands around Shelton and brought him to the turf, denying the Sporting forward an obvious goal scoring opportunity. Referee Dave Gantar initially brandished a yellow card, but Wilson was sent off upon video review. On the ensuing free kick, Pulido’s stinging strike bent over Colorado’s four-man wall and rattled the woodwork, much to the relief of a helpless Yarbrough.
Undeterred, Sporting found their equalizer in the 65th minute. Afforded space on the left wing, Luis Martins sent a looping cross to the far post that Gadi Kinda controlled and clipped back across the face of goal. Shelton was on hand to fire home a thunderous volley at a tight angle to mark his third consecutive game with a goal, having bagged Sporting’s lone goal in a 2-1 loss to Minnesota United FC last Sunday.
Another VAR moment worked in Sporting’s favor with 20 minutes remaining. Zusi’s audacious shot attempt on the right edge of the box ricocheted off the outstretched Rubio and skipped marginally wide of the target, but video review confirmed Rubio to have illegally touched the ball with his hand. Sporting were thusly awarded a penalty kick, and Pulido made no mistake by slotting low into the left corner past Yarbrough. The 29-year-old Mexican has three goals and two assists in his debut campaign and is the first Sporting player ever to record a goal or an assist in his first four regular season appearances for the club.
The tale went from bad to worse for Colorado moments later, as Price received his marching orders for violent conduct and reduced the Rapids to nine men. Despite their numerical disadvantage, head coach Robin Fraser’s side grabbed an unlikely equalizer in the 84th minute. Mere seconds after Yarbrough took the ball of Shelton’s feet at one end, Colorado countered as longtime Sporting forward Kei Kamara slipped the ball into the path of Lewis. The 23-year-old tucked his shot low past Sanchez for his second tally of the campaign.
The final plot twist of a cracking encounter came in the first minute of second-half stoppage time. Following a crazy scramble in a crowded penalty area, Zusi tried his luck with a low drive on the edge of the box that took a wicked deflection and looped into the back of the net. Sporting would hold their 3-2 advantage past the 100-minute mark before Gantar’s full-time whistle drew an end to the gripping affair.
With three precious points in the bag, Sporting will conclude their group stage campaign Wednesday versus RSL in an 8 a.m. CT kickoff — the earliest start to a competitive match in club history. The game will be shown live on ESPN, ESPN Deportes and the ESPN app.