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Sporting KC hopes end of winless streak sparks winning run

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Sporting Kansas City is unfortunately used to winless streaks in their past few seasons.

After winning two of their first five matches in 2022, SKC went on a seven-match winless streak where they ended the season in 12th place in the Western Conference.

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Then in 2023, Sporting opened the season with a 10-match winless streak marred by injuries to starters like Dániel Sallói, Tim Melia and Logan Ndenbe. After, the team went on a playoff run, defeating top-seeded St. Louis City SC as a 9-seed en route to the Western Conference semifinals.

Last season’s winless streak ended with a 2-1 win over Seattle Sounders FC on the road.

In 2024, after mustering only two wins in the first six matches, Sporting went winless through 10 straight matches including losing the last seven.

However, the winless streak ended at home Saturday with a 2-1 win over Seattle in front of 18,177 raucous fans in attendance.

A coincidence? Sure. But some say it was written in the stars.

“I think it’s a good luck charm,” defender Robert Castellanos joked after the match. He started for Dany Rosero who was out with a hip injury. “I think Seattle knows it. But, you know, I just feel like, you know, things kind of repeat themselves, but this time we have more of a control of it. So we just need to focus on the positives and just endure as much as we can but just never give up on each other.”

“Probably more relief than anything,” forward Johnny Russell said. “It’s a good feeling. We haven’t done it for so long and it’s been it’s been a really difficult time for us but in order to get that one back, hard fought victory as well.”

After Seattle striker Jordan Morris scored a wide-open goal in the 13th minute off of a lob from João Paulo to take an early lead.

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Sporting then responded with a Russell goal six minutes later after the captain sent a left-footed shot to the left corner outside the box from the midfield. Russell was all over the pitch on Saturday, including tracking back on defense more often than usual in the right flank.

The captain’s fighting attitude was infectious with the team, especially in the 70th minute when Russell got into a physical altercation with Seattle center-back Yeimar Gomez. Gomez was hovering over Dániel Sallói and Russell said he nudged his injured right ankle.

“Don’t be like shadowing over someone,” Russell said. Sallói took a two-footed slide from Seattle defender Jackson Ragen and Russell and Gomez received yellow cards. He was carried off without putting weight on his right leg and rode a one-legged scooter out of Children’s Mercy Park on Saturday evening.

“It was enough to cause Daniel discomfort. If someone’s injured, honestly just stay the f— away from them. Sorry for swearing but I don’t like that part of the game.”

Alenis Vargas, the 20-year-old winger, subbed in for Sallói in the 72nd minute and his impact was immediate. His pace and fight for the ball on the right wing helped him draw a second yellow card from defender Reed Baker-Whiting in the next minute to put Seattle down to 10 men for the final 24 minutes of the match.

Right back substitution Khiry Shelton sent a line-breaking through pass to a streaking Vargas on the right side of the box. Vargas sent a right-footed shot through the legs of goalkeeper Stefan Frei for his second goal of the season in the 83rd minute giving Sporting the win.

Vargas’ first MLS goal came in Sporting’s last MLS win on March 30 to the Colorado Rapids. Another coincidence? Two late subs in Shelton and Vargas helped make the difference in ending Sporting’s winless streak.

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“I’m happy not because [of] the goal. I’m happy because you see, when we lose or something we are winning and then we tie the game and sometimes we lose, the locker [room] is different. I like this feeling so I mean that’s why I try to fight [for] every ball, try to score more goals to have this [feeling] everybody happy.”

“Alenis really paid attention when he went in because the whole idea was for him to attack them and there’s no way [Baker-Whiting] can stay with him,” head coach Peter Vermes said. “So it was really to put them under pressure and he did exactly that.”

Shelton notched an assist as a starting right back in SKC’s last home match two weeks ago against the Vancouver Whitecaps as the usual right back, Jake Davis, transitioned with SKC to the midfield without several injured midfielders. He also subbed in at RB against Minnesota United in the 75th minute.

The traditional attacker has been training as a central defender and fullback for the past few weeks and is still adjusting to his new role, acknowledging that there are still a lot of things for him to learn. But he is embracing helping his team however he can.

“When you’re put on the back line and you never really play there. You understand the responsibility that there’s nobody else behind you,” Vermes said. “He does a very good job of being attentive, like being really alert to where he needs to be positionally from the tactical perspective. But the other [thing] is that he’s very calm the ball in those situations facing the field. And, you know, it could be a place that we found for him.”

“Credit to him, you know, he sees something,” Shelton said about Vermes. “He’s our leader. I’m here to listen to him and, you know, not argue with him and just play my role. And whatever my role is, which I know, is to do that, and do it to my best to the best of my ability. I take it as a as a challenge and I’m always up for a challenge.”

The streak is over, the monkey is off of SKC’s back. So, what’s next?

Kansas City will get no slouches over the next few matches facing a string of teams already in playoff positioning: LA Galaxy (road), Real Salt Lake (home), Columbus Crew (road), Austin FC road) and Colorado Rapids (road) leading up to the beginning of July.

There’s still a long season to go until MLS Cup Playoffs in October, so SKC has plenty of time to rise from their 12th-place position in the Western Conference.

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Shelton’s and Vargas’s development at their respective positions could help spark something with the squad, especially with Sallói’s injury that Vermes guessed is a sprained ankle. However, nothing was confirmed as of Saturday evening.

But staying together, taking the game day by day, and other sports cliches that players and coaches use, is how they hope to repeat a winning run like last season.

“It’s just a huge feeling of relief to get that off your back, get that one,” Russell said. “We showed last year that, we’re a team that doesn’t quit, we can fight it out. Oh, I’m sure we’re gonna do it again. Hopefully, that’s the start of the turnaround. That’s only the first step. Not going to get carried away, there’s still still a long way to go. There’s still a lot that we have to work on, but it’s a step in the right direction.”

“We have humble confidence in ourselves, the organization, the fans showed up too and they were there cheering for us so that’s big,” Shelton said. “And we appreciate that and we’ll continue to take those baby steps and and keep moving. We got to keep pushing each other and make sure we back one another.”

Just before Vermes stepped into the media room to speak with local reporters, he was heard talking to a yelling player saying “Calm down, it’s just one game.”

When asked about the moment, he took a long pause before reflecting on last season.

“I think this is a good team,” he said. “The issue last year, which was a little bit different, for the longest time, I had to be the one that tried to keep telling them that. This win should reinforce that to them. They’re good. When they want to play, they can play.

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“I would say that tonight we really didn’t give silly things away in the game. I thought Castellanos played very well in the back. I thought he was in control, he’s very good in the air, he was good with the ball. I think [center back Andreu] Fontàs was a good partnership with him because we’re able to move the ball and keep the ball and we were talking about possession earlier; that partnership worked really well. I think those things helped the game and help the team a lot.”

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