If 2020 was a weird year for Sporting Kansas City, well, that trend continued Saturday night against the New York Red Bulls in Harrison, New Jersey.
But all’s well that ends well, right?
Playing with a patchwork lineup at Red Bull Arena, KC scored a quickfire double in the second half to rally for a 2-1 victory.
The highly anticipated season opener’s first twist came earlier in the week, when Sporting coach Peter Vermes revealed that 19-year-old goalkeeper John Pulskamp would make his Major League Soccer debut following injuries to KC’s three other goalkeepers.
More weirdness: Newly appointed team captain Johnny Russell didn’t start Saturday despite having previously been declared healthy. Star forward Alan Pulido was out, too, having sustained a knee injury in international duty. And midfielder Gianluca Busio began the game as a false nine.
“The resiliency in the group to come back and get two goals like they did and not fold, (that’s) excellent for a first game to come back from something like that,” Vermes said.
Seventeen-year-old Red Bulls prodigy Caden Clark opened the scoring in the 48th minute. But a Gadi Kinda penalty kick in the 59th, followed by a goal from Daniel Salloi a minute later, made it 2-1 KC.
Since 2010, the Red Bulls had been MLS’s best team when playing at home. They still have the most home-opener wins in league history: 16.
Sporting sat on its back foot for much of the first half, unable to create sustained pressure. Busio did a good job of pressuring the New York back line but looked uncomfortable on the ball when he was asked to hold it up. And Salloi saw little action come his way in the first half before a much improved second.
Pulskamp, the 19-year-old? He wasn’t called upon often, but a bad touch at one point almost handed New York an easy goal. The teams entered halftime with four shots apiece, not a single one of which was on target.
That stat was erased three minutes into the second half when Clark scored a sweet, looping volley over Pulskamp and into the back corner. The opportunity came off the back of Nicolas Isimat-Mirin’s head.
Otherwise, Pulskamp enjoyed a successful debut.
“Life as a goalkeeper, right? First one happens to be a volley that’s put right into the top corner,” he said. “You’ve just got to look at it — there’s nothing you can do.”
Playing at a deficit seemed to kick-start KC. Sporting upped its intensity and eventually won a penalty following a handball by New York’s Andrew Gutman.
Kinda converted the penalty and Salloi netted the equalizer from close range after Khiry Shelton placed the ball on a silver platter. It was the first time since 2007 that KC scored in back-to-back minutes.
The goal was a big one for Salloi: The homegrown product hadn’t scored since the end of the 2019 season.
“I’m buzzing. I think this is amazing,” said Salloi, who had much better off-the-ball movement in the second half against the Red Bulls and right back Kyle Duncan. “Obviously, I prefer the team to win, but I needed that goal a lot.
“It means a lot to me, and I’m very happy for it. Hopefully, this is how the season progresses after this.”
New York pressed for an equalizer in the final 15 minutes. KC subbed out both goalscorers, sending in Russell and Pulido and allowing Busio to drop back into the midfield and play his natural No. 10 position.
The changes helped KC hold the ball in New York’s half in the final minutes of the game. By then, it didn’t seem like KC was clinging to a one-goal lead.
“Obviously they gave us experience,” Vermes said of inserting Russell and Pulido late. “It’s on top of what they can do, but it’s just experience late in the game.”
Sporting KC’s next game in a 34-match regular-season schedule is the club’s home opener Friday at 7:30 p.m. Central vs. Orlando City at Children’s Mercy Park.