Johnny Russell’s late strike lifted Sporting Kansas City (2-3-0, 6 points) to a well-earned 1-0 victory over previously unbeaten rivals Real Salt Lake (3-1-1, 10 points) on Saturday night at sold-out Children’s Mercy Park.
A tightly contested game was decided in the 81st minute as Russell marked his return from injury with a crucial match-winner that snapped Sporting’s three-game losing streak in the head-to-head series and avenged last year’s playoff loss to RSL. The result also gave goalkeeper Tim Melia his second straight 1-0 win on home soil as Sporting took sole possession of second place in MLS history with 341 regular season victories all-time.
Sporting Manager Peter Vermes fielded a lineup that featured two changes from last weekend’s road loss to Chicago Fire FC. Russell recovered from a hamstring issue to join the starting XI alongside fellow winger Daniel Salloi, who missed the Chicago match with a calf problem, while Cam Duke and Kortne Ford moved to the bench. Defender Logan Ndenbe and winger Marinos Tzionis were absent for international duty with Belgium and Cyprus, respectively.
Three Sporting veterans hit major milestones on Saturday as Melia logged his 200th regular season appearance for the club, midfielder Roger Espinoza earned his 300th start for the team in all competitions, and defender Graham Zusi passed Matt Besler atop Kansas City’s all-time chart for minutes played.
Salloi had RSL on their heels within 60 seconds of kickoff, winning possession on the left flank and swiftly beating defender Andrew Brody before dragging a shot marginally wide of the far post. An entertaining start to proceedings then saw the hosts threaten, with Jonathan Menendez running onto a Pablo Ruiz through ball only to see his breakaway strike cast aside by Melia.
The teams exchanged barbs once more on the half-hour mark. Salloi ran out of real estate and had a shot blocked on one end, then Sporting center back Andreu Fontas intervened crucially in the penalty area to prevent Sergio Cordova’s square pass from finding an open Menendez in front of the gaping net. Not long later, Russell uncorked an audacious effort from 25 yards that failed to test RSL goalkeeper Zac MacMath.
Melia delivered heroically with three minutes left in the first half to keep the game goalless. A long free kick into Sporting’s box fell invitingly to RSL center back Erik Holt, whose close-range blast was destined for the right corner, but Melia sprung left at full extension for a finger-tip save that drew deserved applause from supporters.
MacMath conjured a big save of his own in the 49th minute, palming away Espinoza’s long-range curler. Salloi was first to react on the rebound, but his follow-up attempt was blocked behind for a corner kick. Shortly thereafter, an unmarked Menendez wasted a clear-cut chance for RSL by nodding wide off a Jasper Loffelsend cross.
The action intensified over the final half-hour and Salloi was left ruing his luck near the 60-minute mark, sending a low drive wide of the near post into the side netting after finding a pocket of space in the box. A few minutes later, Felipe Hernandez flicked a clever back-heel pass to the feet of an on-running Nikola Vujnovic, whose right-footed belter was denied by MacMath.
Khiry Shelton entered as a 62nd-minute substitute and instantly involved himself in a promising attack, winning a duel at midfield and spreading the ball wide left to Salloi. The Hungarian’s inch-perfect diagonal switch was settled by Russell, who cut past a pair of RSL defenders and fired over the bar from 15 yards.
Russell landed the decisive haymaker in the 81st minute. The Scottish winger received a square pass from Zusi on the edge of the box and although his intitial pass attempt was cut out, he pounced on the loose ball and continued his run into the box before slotting low past MacMath to notch Sporting’s 400th goal in Children’s Mercy Park history.
Sporting would hold on to their 1-0 advantage until referee Joe Dickerson blew his full-time whistle, giving Vermes’ men three crucial points ahead of next Saturday’s trip to Vancouver Whitecaps FC (0-3-1, 1 point). The contest will kick off at 7 p.m. CT with live coverage on 38 The Spot, the Sporting KC app and SportingKC.com.