Sporting Kansas City (14-7-6, 48 points) claimed a 1-0 victory over Orlando City SC (7-17-3, 24 points) on Saturday night at Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kansas, to move within a point of first place in the Western Conference.
Midfielder Felipe Gutierrez bagged the game-winner in the 53rd minute, his sixth goal of the season and his first since March 31, as Sporting KC leapfrogged Los Angeles Football Club for second place in the West and closed the gap on leaders FC Dallas.
Goalkeeper Tim Melia posted his MLS-leading 12th shutout of 2018 and the 38th of his regular season career, taking sole possession of second-most in Sporting KC history.
Manager Peter Vermes flexed his depth on Saturday as three Sporting KC forwards – Diego Rubio, Johnny Russell and Daniel Salloi – were unavailable on international duty and defender Ike Opara was sidelined due to caution accumulation.
That paved the way for Spanish center back Andreu Fontas to make a strong MLS debut alongside Matt Besler, who notably logged his 250th regular-season appearance.
In attack, center forward Krisztian Nemeth earned his first start since returning to the club last month, while the active Yohan Croizet occupied the wing opposite of Gerso Fernandes.
Nemeth was on the receiving end of Sporting KC’s first opportunity in the fifth minute, but Orlando defender Carlos Ascues applied the slightest of touches on Croizet’s in-swinging cross to prevent the Hungarian forward from striking the ball cleanly.
The Lions immediately responded with a massive chance of their own as former Sporting KC striker Dom Dwyer – making his first return to Children’s Mercy Park since leaving the club in a trade last summer – raced onto a long ball over the top and forced Melia into a splendid one-on-one save.
The sides traded another pair of close shaves near the hour mark. Slick ball movement from the hosts saw Roger Espinoza settle an Ilie Sanchez pass and pick out Nemeth, whose side-footer was smothered by Orlando goalkeeper Joe Bendik. At the opposite end, Dwyer won a free kick and curled his ensuing attempt narrowly over the woodwork.
Gutierrez effectively decided the contest eight minutes after the restart. Croizet squared up his defender on the right side of the box and played centrally to Gutierrez, who fired low into the left corner from the top of the box to ignite joyous celebrations across Children’s Mercy Park.
Orlando entered the weekend with the worst defensive record in MLS and just a single shutout all year, and Sporting KC almost doubled its advantage on 58 minutes when Ilie nodded marginally over the bar off a Graham Zusi free kick.
Two of Melia’s three saves came off the foot of Dwyer, and the Sporting KC gloveman stopped his former teammate again in the 60th minute. Dwyer chased a Cristian Higuita through ball and pulled the trigger from a tight angle, but Melia produced a fine stop to preserve the clean sheet and keep his side in front.
Vermes’ men threatened on three occasions over the final quarter-hour. Nemeth did brilliantly to gain separation off a Fernandes feed and test Bendik with a stinging strike that was palmed aside, shortly before Gutierrez dragged a shot just wide from the same spot he scored. Espinoza then created a turnover and spread the ball right to Croizet, whose thunderous effort was parried away by Bendik.
Winners of five of the last six games, Sporting KC will return to action next Saturday to visit Western Conference cellar dwellers San Jose Earthquakes (4-15-8, 20 points) at 9:30 p.m. on FOX Sports Kansas City and FOX Sports Midwest Plus.
– Story from Sporting KC