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Grading Sporting KC: Russell scores, team shows defensive edge in tough away match


Sporting Kansas City jumped into first-place in the Western Conference on Sunday after beating the LA Galaxy, completing a home-and-away sweep of the league’s Los Angeles teams.

Sporting KC has strung some dominant performances together in recent matches, save for a 2-1 away loss to the Portland Timbers.

This match, however, was different. Both teams were missing key cogs, with Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez suffering an injury in warmups for the Galaxy and Sporting KC striker Alan Pulido on Mexican national team duty.

The Galaxy had 54% of possession and 18 shots to Sporting KC’s 12. Sporting spent much of the first half on the back foot. Though Sporting KC didn’t have to make yet another comeback, the Galaxy missed a few clear chances and Sporting KC won in typical away-from-home fashion, coming out of its shell in the waning minutes of the match.

“Not every game’s going to be the same, not every team is going to allow us to play our possession game, it’s going to be difficult especially when you come into places like this,” Sporting KC forward Johnny Russell said after the match. “It’s an away game, at times we had to ride our luck a little bit. You do appreciate these victories, sometimes these feel even better than games that you dominate.”

Russell, Shelton score first goals of the season

Johnny Russell’s status as one of Sporting KC’s top players hasn’t looked that way to start 2021. With Pulido and Salloi’s surging form as of late, Russell had struggled to get back up to speed after starting the year injured.

Russell found the goal for the first time this season fortuitously, as the ball ricocheted off Galaxy goalkeeper Jonathan Bond and Russell’s header sent it sailing into the opposite corner of the goal.

Russell had six goals and four assists last season, and the 31-year-old appears to be setting a similar pace this year. He has one goal and three assists in 12 matches played in 2021.

As for Khiry Shelton, a goal in the dying seconds of the match rewarded his effort over the past 94 minutes. Shelton has struggled to find much of a foothold among Pulido, Salloi and Russell. The more defensive mood of this match suited his speed and pressing ability.

Busio’s defensive role

If you’ve been watching Sporting KC lately, the following image should look familiar.

When Sporting KC distributes the ball from the back, Gianluca Busio drops back in between the centerbacks and plays a pass up the field, usually to a fullback. Sporting KC’s tactics have become much more fluid since Busio settled into that role, with fullbacks free to maraud up the field.

Jaylin Lindsey’s fantastic showings this season owe in part to that freedom. In Sunday’s match, though, Sporting KC’s defensive posture didn’t give it much of a chance to get the fullbacks up the pitch for crosses. As Lindsey is out with a hamstring injury, Graham Zusi turned in a sound performance at right back.

Busio typically picks his moments to dribble into space and set up a scoring chance, but few could be found in Sunday’s match. Instead, Busio took few risks, completing 94.3% of his passes. His only through ball of the match was the assist on Shelton’s goal, which was unlikely to have been intentional as Busio cleared away a late cross attempt in the final seconds before Shelton scored.

Isimat-Mirin returns to the field

Nicolas Isimat-Mirin arrived to Sporting KC this offseason from Besiktas looking to become the club’s anchor at centerback and a replacement of sorts for the reliable Matt Besler, who signed with Austin FC.

But 13 games into the season, Isimat-Mirin made only his third appearance and has spent the rest out with an injury. Whether Isimat-Mirin can work his way into the lineup with Sporting KC in such good form will be interesting to see.

Ilie Sanchez, normally a holding midfielder, has started the past nine matches at centerback. Sporting KC tried a few different solutions to the centerback issue in the immediate aftermath of Isimat-Mirin and Roberto Puncec’s injuries several weeks ago, giving academy product Kaveh Rad a shot.

With Busio’s No. 6 role solidifying, it makes a lot of sense for Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes to press on with the centerback pairing of Sanchez and Andreu Fontas.

Sporting KC Player Ratings

Tim Melia (8) – Melia made several excellent saves, including two point-blank ones in the first half. This was one of Melia’s strongest games of the year.

Luis Martins (4) – Martins could not keep up with Samuel Grandsir on LA Galaxy’s right wing. Martins struggled defensively with LA’s right side, which featured Grandsir and Julian Araujo.

Ilie Sanchez (7.5) – Sanchez showed why he might continue starting at centerback even if Isimat-Mirin is back for good. He was surprisingly strong defending on set pieces and completed 90% of his passes.

Andreu Fontas (7) – Fontas nearly scored at the back post on a corner kick, but his header smacked the post. Fontas turned in a solid showing and saw plenty of the ball.

Graham Zusi (6) – Zusi’s defensive work helped Sporting KC weather the storm in the first half. He provided the right amount of cover at the back for Martins, who had more freedom to drift up the field.

Felipe Hernandez (8) – Hernandez excelled yet again. His pressing resulted in Johnny Russell’s 81st-minute goal and made four interceptions and two tackles.

Roger Espinoza (5) – Espinoza committed three fouls and had one tackle and one interception. His involvement didn’t stick out greatly, but he plays a key holding role in Ilie’s absence from the midfield.

Gianluca Busio (8) – Busio would have had two assists if Fontas scored a point-blank header off Busio’s beautiful free-kick feed. However, Busio played little in the attack and somehow still managed an assist.

Johnny Russell (7) – Russell finally found his first goal of the season after many strong performances before this match. His ability to stretch the field and win 1v1 battles remains key for Sporting KC’s attack.

Khiry Shelton (7) – Shelton fit well with Sporting KC’s counterattacking tactics this time, and it showed when he scored a goal on a breakaway late in the match. He hasn’t had many opportunities because of Pulido and Salloi’s success, but Vermes values him as a substitute or fill-in.

Daniel Salloi (5) – Salloi normally finds several scoring chances, but he couldn’t thrive in this match because of the Galaxy’s possession.


  1. SKC won by being very physical. They weren’t dirty, but a lot of Galaxy players ending up eating dirt. Their starting CB had to leave early in the second half after getting a very hard foul, Araujo got a knock and hung around a little but wasn’t effective and was finally subbed off. Those defensive changes were the difference. The new CB, Saldana was stripped just outside of his own box because of the high KC press and that led to the goal.


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