Sporting KC exploit the gaps in Minnesota’s defense for late winner

KANSAS CITY, KS - AUGUST 17: Sporting Kansas City forward Erik Hurtado (19) brings the ball forward in the second half of an MLS match between the San Jose Earthquakes and Sporting Kansas City on August 17, 2019 at Children's Mercy Park in Kansas City, KS. (Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Kansas City, Kansas — It was a move Sporting KC had been working on all night, but it finally paid off in the 88th minute. Looking to exploit the gaps in Minnesota’s defensive third all night, Johnny Russell finally found a pocket of space as the clock wound down.

Taking a quick touch, he played the ball through to an onrushing Erik Hurtado between the lines. From there, all Hurtado had to do was round goalkeeper Vito Mannone and place it into an empty night.

Well, I make it sound a lot more simple than it actually is.

 “It’s second nature,” Hurtado said. “I was just going behind, it’s what I do, it’s what I’ve been doing since I can remember.”

His goal was enough to secure a crucial 1-0 victory for Sporting KC in the “nicest rivalry in sports.”

Sporting KC exploit the gaps between defense and midfield

Facing the second-best team in the West would be considered a problem for most teams. But in a rivalry game — even one that’s only three years old — that all goes out the window.

Sporting KC enjoyed a dominant home performance from the first whistle, possessing 61% of the ball from wire to wire. But despite that, it just wouldn’t click for Peter Vermes’ side, who lacked the vital final pass throughout the night.

Kansas City produced 22 shots on the night, but only five of those were on target. And that stat doesn’t include the countless opportunities in which Sporting didn’t shoot when it should have.

“[Minnesota] didn’t give too much away, but we were relentless tonight,” Vermes said. “There’s no doubt that if you look at the overall game…the points are well deserved. It was the relentlessness of the guys in pursuit of that goal.”

The game saw excellent goalkeeping on both sides, with Mannone and Melia keeping things deadlocked through heroic saves. But when the nicest rivalry in sports was set to finish in a nice 0-0 tie, Sporting KC blew things wide open.

Exploiting the gaps between Minnesota’s defense and midfield, Russell had finally succeeded in something Sporting had been trying all night.

“Something we were looking to exploit all night was the gaps between the defense and the midfield that we got a few times but not as often as we would have liked,” Russell said. “As the game grew, we knew we were going to have to create something.”

Breaking down the goal

“It was a great ball in from Ilie, I managed to get there in time and it’s a great run from Erik,” Russell said. “I put it in a great area for him but he does all the hard work — gets in front of the defender, takes a great touch, rounds the goalkeeper and tucks it away. It’s a huge goal for us.”

Heading into the game, the Sporting KC staff had identified a weakness in Minnesota’s formation. Throughout the game, both Russell and Daniel Salloi dropped into deeper roles, receiving the ball between the gaps of midfield and defense. This allowed them to pick up the ball and play through balls to Hurtado throughout the evening.

On the game-winning goal, Russell’s quick touch and pass were timed perfectly with Hurtado’s run to allow the latter to take his first touch around Mannone. But even then, for a guy of Hurtado’s size, it was an impressively quick piece of footwork.

Formation change

Fans of Sporting KC have become accustomed to seeing a 4-3-3 formation in recent seasons. But Peter Vermes bucked that trend on Thursday. He instead opted for a 4-1-4-1, playing Russell and Salloi has midfielders.

The pair still held pretty high up the field but holding them further back allowed Sporting to exploit the gaps.

“Defensively, we’ve been working on getting in a solid shape, and from there we break out. It was more trying to not stay out too wide and playing in between the lines,” Russell said.

“We got a lot of balls threaded through for us there, and the goal comes from that as well,” he continued. “Decision-making, the overlap, giving me space to come inside and get a bit of time on the goal and I managed to pick out Erik.”

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