Sporting Kansas City learned the hard way Saturday night that if you play with fire too many times, you get burned.
Entering this weekend’s game with FC Dallas at Children’s Mercy Park, Sporting led Major League Soccer with 17 points and five wins from losing positions. No other team has had more than eight points and two wins, respectively.
So when Dallas’ Paxton Pomykal scored in the third minute of Saturday’s match to put Sporting in a familiar early hole, it was almost if there was an expectation Sporting would storm back at some point. Only that storm never came.
Jesus Ferreira doubled Dallas’ lead in the 51st minute, and though a late consolation goal from winger Johnny Russell gave SKC some life, its good fortune of getting points from the brink ran out in a 2-1 loss.
It was Dallas’ first road win and Kansas City’s first home loss of the year, and put a damper on a night that could’ve been celebratory — with the Seattle Sounders’ loss to the San Jose Earthquakes, a Sporting win would’ve meant it would sit alone at the top of the Western Conference.
Instead, coach Peter Vermes and his team are left to figure out a way to start better more consistently.
“It takes on the same kind of emphasis ... you don’t ever want to start in the hole,” Vermes said. “We don’t want to (be behind), and I don’t think the guys plan on it or try to do it that way. It’s just today I think when the game started, we were maybe in third gear and they were in fifth gear to start. And even like the pace of the ball, just the movement of the ball (and) us moving with the game, we just weren’t there.”
Vermes spoke often of the pace of play and how it affected his squad, saying that his team wasn’t ready for Dallas, which came into Saturday having scored two away goals all season, to come out fast.
Dallas was extremely effective at sending numbers forward and making Sporting uncomfortable in having to defend the counter-attack, or even worse, having to deal with being dispossessed in its own half. That’s what happened on the first goal, as Russell gave possession away in his own final third to Dallas midfielder Ryan Hollingshead. The MLS veteran then played a pass to Pomykal down the middle, who settled with a touch and beat SKC goalkeeper Tim Melia with a superb long-range strike.
The goals Dallas scored had plenty of quality; Ferreira’s second-half score came from a nearly-identical position to Pomykal’s, both of which were difficult for Melia to save. It was how and why Dallas got to those positions that irked Sporting.
“I think we started a little bit slow both halves,” Sporting defender Andreu Fontas said. “... Usually, they don’t score from there, but today, they hit two very good shots and they scored. It’s frustrating because I think we tried to push them back. We did it a lot of other games, but today it was impossible.”
After Ferreira’s goal, a switch seemed to flick on for Sporting to get going. SKC attempting to pick up the pace late isn’t new: out of its West-leading 29 goals this season, 19 have been scored after halftime. It entered Saturday’s game with six goals scored in the 80th minute or later, getting its seventh when Russell netted a header from a Daniel Salloi cross in the 85th minute.
For the game’s last half-hour, SKC sent more men forward and kept heavy possession in Dallas’ half in trying to put the visitors off-kilter. SKC had won the possession (58.6-41.4%) and shot (20-12) battles by full time, but Dallas didn’t let the match break open, even as Sporting knocked on the door with two no-calls on Salloi getting tripped in the box and a disallowed goal from midfielder Gadi Kinda.
Sporting’s precarious tendency to get points late came back to bite it Saturday night. With a critical summer stretch of six matches in 22 days upcoming, it’s important for it not to turn into a habit.
“We were all over them the rest of the game,” Vermes said after Dallas’ second goal. “We just couldn’t find it. It was a great goal by Johnny, but we just couldn’t find it at the end. But I have no complaints about our guys other than we’ve just got to be ready for the start of the game. That was it, (and) I’ll make sure that happens next time.”