It is a Sporting Kansas City tradition. It seems so, anyway. Each match down the stretch is critical to at least feeling good going into the next season, but, hopefully, to earning a spot in the Major League Soccer playoffs.
With five matches left in their schedule, Sporting can finish anywhere, mathematically, from 14th to possibly 2nd at this point. In reality, all fans are hoping for is 9th, to nab that final playoff spot. (Ok, 8th for at least one home playoff match.) Elusive like 2022? Or a good bet? Tonight would provide more clarity.
But “Not Tonight” the soccer gods would proclaim as Sporting Kansas City dropped a 3-0 decision to Nashville SC Wednesday evening at Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kansas. Nashville’s Hany Mukhtar would claim a goal and an assist, while Kansas City’s sharpness in front of goal was absent.
For a brief, yet glorious, time last Saturday night and much of Sunday, Sporting was sitting at that #9 in the West after their 1-0 victory at Minnesota United. Tonight, again, presents an opportunity for Sporting to leap into that spot – perhaps only temporarily again – many did not think they could achieve after beginning the season 0-7-3 with only three points and three goals to the good.
Yet, Sporting has captured wins in three of the last four with the same, in general, Starting 11. In the first of the last five matches of the 2023 season, nothing changed:
To combat Nashville’s quick balls into reigning MLS MVP Hany Mukhtar and their long-ball counterattack leanings, Sporting played a high line in back. Early on, that line caught both Mukhtar and fellow attacker Fafa Picault offside.
For Sporting, quick interplay on the right wing saw the brightest early chance in the 23rd minute as Daniel Salloi laid down a tame ball on the inside right channel of Nashville’s box for Johnny Russell to hit, yet the Scot’s shot went wayward.
Two corners for Nashville nearly back-to-back were not what Sporting needed. Daniel Lovitz sent in both, the second in the 29th minute for Picault who had run up the gut unmarked as Walker Zimmerman baited a hoard as he cleared the middle of KC’s box. Unhindered, Picault only had to direct Lovitz’s service downward for a 1-0 Nashville lead.
As halftime arrived, a question for Sporting was how to cut off Nashville’s holding midfielder Dax McCarty (and sometimes Alex Muyl) from the ball. McCarty had too often easily slid into space between the lines and had time to turn and purvey the field to pick out advantages or ideal matchups for the visitors in the first forty-five minutes.
Kansas City’s holding midfielder Nemanja Radoja spent the half dropping back to shield the back four, and no one in the midfield bothered much with McCarty. With Radoja leaving the match for attacker Gadi Kinda at the break, the responsibility likely would fall to Remi Walter who slid into the #6 position.
Nashville wasted little time earning a chance to go up two. Mukhtar carried and dipped and feinted until he found space to let loose in the 49th minute. The German’s far-post roller forced KC goalkeeper Tim Melia down to the right to fingertip the ball wide.
Nashville threatened again in the 63rd with a shot that whisked outside of Melia’s left post from a delightful ball in from Mukhtar and a subsequent slick drop back.
The unpredictable and the nearly unbelievable left the weekday crowd aghast in the 66th minute. Off Lovitz corner, Sporting cleared the ball and cleared out of the back. Nashville goalkeeper Joe Willis ran up near the center circle and flighted the ball back in. Though all of Nashville’s lingering attackers seemed offside, play continued. Zimmerman latched onto the ball wide right of Sporting’s box. The American international played for a runner at the six-yard box, but the cross was rejected. Mukhtar picked up the loose ball and found paydirt for the 2-0 lead.
Mild threats from Kansas City – as they had been all night at a 0.3xG at the 75th minute – continued before Vermes threw on a slew of substitutes, assumedly in preparation for a possible three point grab at home this coming Saturday: Willy Agada, Marinos Tzionis, Felipe Gutierrez, and Robert Voloder stepped on for Alan Pulido, Russell, Thommy, and Andreu Fontas.
The night grew more dim in the 76th minute. Mukhtar swerved in a free kick from Sporting’s left flank that found a rising Jack Maher. Maher deposited the ball into the net and Nashville were well on their way to their first win since July 8. From June 21, the Eastern Conference club had scored only four goals in nine matches.
Sporting will face a surging Houston Dynamo Saturday night in a match that takes on even more importance if Kansas City is to make the playoffs.