Latif Blessing marked his first MLS start with two goals to help Sporting Kansas City earn a 2-2 draw against Orlando City SC on Saturday night.
A match between two second-place teams in respective conferences entertained from the beginning to end as Blessing’s brace bookended Orlando goals from Cyle Larin and Kaka. The 20-year-old Ghanaian became the youngest player in Sporting Kansas City history to score twice in a competitive match, snapping the Lions’ previously perfect 5-0-0 home record at the new Orlando City Stadium.
The tie moves Sporting Kansas City (5-2-4, 19 points) level on points with the first-place Houston Dynamo in the Western Conference, while Orlando (6-3-1, 19 points) enters a second-place tie in the East with Columbus Crew SC.
Manager Peter Vermes made three lineup changes from last Sunday’s 2-0 loss at Minnesota United FC, with right-sided defenders Ike Opara and Graham Zusi returning to the fold and Blessing earning his first career MLS start in place of the suspended Dom Dwyer.
Captain Matt Besler notably recorded his 250th appearance for Sporting Kansas City in all competitions, becoming the fifth player in club history to reach the momentous milestone.
Blessing seized the opportunity he was afforded by firing Sporting Kansas City ahead in the ninth minute, applying the finishing touch to culminate a slick, penetrating move through the heart of the Lions’ defense. Zusi played centrally to Ilie, who turned to goal and slid a pass to Gerso on the right side of the box. The winger’s low cross was initially smothered by Orlando’s Jose Aja before caroming off Besler and falling kindly to Blessing, who poked home on the doorstep to become the fourth-youngest goal scorer in Sporting KC regular season history at 20 years and 135 days.
The Lions conjured a quick response, restoring parity in the 16th minute on a play involving their two forwards. Carlos Rivas received a pass from Donny Toia, exploited a pocket of space on the left flank and curled a teasing cross into the penalty area for Larin, who stuck out his right foot to prod the ball past Melia for his team-leading seventh goal of the campaign.
The first-half pendulum continued to swing as Benny Feilhaber’s free kick into a crowded box in the 24th minute was repelled only as far as Espinoza, whose half volley from the top of the 18 sailed high and wide of frame.
Orlando surged in front on 26 minutes thanks to a brilliant finish from Brazilian World Cup winner Kaka. Another dangerous delivery from Rivas narrowly missed the outstretched Larin and rolled to Scott Sutter near the right corner flag. In a fluent motion, Kaka chested down the ensuing cross and slotted his strike low past Melia near the penalty spot for his third goal in four matches.
Undaunted, Sporting Kansas City threatened again just after the half-hour mark when Gerso did wonderfully to settle a pass from Zusi, turn toward goal and unleash a left-footed curler from the edge of the box. Orlando goalkeeper Joe Bendik sprung to make one of his six saves on the night, pushing the ball just beyond the top left corner. Minutes later, Blessing combined with Gerso before seeing his shot stopped by Bendik.
The hosts offered the first glimpse of goal after the restart, but Kaka’s bending free kick lofted harmlessly over the crossbar in the 50th minute. Less than 60 seconds later, Bendik made a superb stop to prevent Roger Espinoza’s low, 22-yard piledriver from nestling into the back of the net.
Vermes men continued to push for an equalizer and came close once more after 53 minutes as Zusi slid a clever ball through to Feilhaber, whose shot from a tight angle on the right side was palmed behind for a corner kick. On the opposite end, Will Johnson’s speculative effort from 30 yards skimmed marginally wide of Melia’s right-hand post.
A contentious decision from referee Ricardo Salazar added further drama to the back-and-forth spectacle in the 69th minute. Medranda did well to squeeze a pass to Blessing, who then went down under Sutter’s challenge eight yards from goal. Salazar waved play to continue, but it would not deter Blessing from bagging his second of the evening five minutes later.
Gerso powered into the penalty area and sent a cut-back pass to Feilhaber, whose low blast was saved by Bendik. However, Blessing was well positioned to tuck the rebound into the gaping net to level proceedings once more.
Only a minute after Sporting Kansas City had clawed even, the Lions thought they had retaken the lead when Aja’s header off a corner kick beat Melia at the near post. But the linesman deemed Johnson’s corner kick to have sailed out of bounds before bending back into the field of play.
The lively Gerso forced another save from Bendik on the 90-minute mark in what proved to be the final scoring chance for either side.
Another game comes quickly for Sporting Kansas City as the club returns to Children’s Mercy Park on Wednesday to meet defending MLS Cup champion Seattle Sounders FC (2-4-4, 10 points) at 7:30 p.m. Fans can secure tickets for the highly anticipated Retro Night match at SeatGeek.com or by calling 888-4KC-GOAL.
– Story from Sporting KC