In a matchup between the top two teams in the Western Conference, Sporting Kansas City rolled into Lumen Field and did what no team had managed to do so far in 2021: Top the Seattle Sounders and leave with all three points, taking a 3-1 victory thanks to first-half strikes from Johnny Russell and Daniel Salloi, then later a first MLS goal for Cameron Duke.
Here are three takeaways coming off Sunday’s match.
Neither team was at full strength due to injuries and international absences, a caveat that Sporting head coach Peter Vermes was quick to acknowledge during his postgame press conference. Vermes himself wasn't coaching due to testing positive for COVID-19, leaving assistant coach Kerry Zavagnin to man the sidelines.
"Yeah, I don't think you can go that far,” Vermes said when asked whether the result is a statement victory. “I think that, look, they're obviously without a lot of players, we’re without a lot of players. I think right now everybody's kind of going through the grind of the summertime.
“And, you know, I think we're just fortunate enough to put together a good effort which resulted in a good result. So, you know, outside of that, we're still points behind, they’re still points ahead and we got to keep trying to gather as many points as we can as we move through the season here."
Vermes isn’t wrong. Both teams have leaned on their depth in recent weeks, piling miles onto key contributors' legs as well. Still, take nothing away from the visitor's impressive performance that put them within two points of the Sounders' West lead, all with a game in hand.
The Sounders have seemingly stacked up results all season regardless of the lineup, and they still had plenty of quality on the field on Sunday with Raul Ruidiaz, Joao Paulo and Fredy Montero. Their backline was anchored by Yeimar Gomez Andrade, too.
And, as Russell pointed out, Lumen Field is one of the toughest places to get a result in the league no matter the circumstances.
“Seattle are up there for a reason, they’re a great side,” Russell told Bally Sports Kansas City on the postgame broadcast. “But so are we, we know that. We are where we are for a reason. Everyone talks about everyone else and leaves us out of the equation. Time and time again we show what we’re about and tonight was no different. Difficult place to come, one of the best places in the league to come. To come here and get a result like that, control the game like we did, it's a massive three points for us.
"It’s not just about this game. This was a big marker of what we can do and it’s up to us to continue that. There’s no point coming here and getting the three points and letting it slip somewhere else.”
After Russell and Salloi gave Sporting a 2-0 lead in the first half, it suddenly became anyone’s game in the 51st minute when Montero pounced on a deflection in the box that cut the lead to 2-1.
That left Sporting clinging to a one-goal advantage, until an unlikely hero in Cameron Duke stepped up and found a back-breaking third tally. The 20-year-old homegrown opened his MLS account in style, making a clever run behind the Seattle backline and first-timing home a volley off a feed from Graham Zusi.
The milestone tally put Duke at the center of the celebrations in what was a raucous postgame visiting locker room, with his teammates barging in and dousing him with water midway through his media availability.
Milestone aside, Sporting need their depth pieces to step up and contribute as they continue to navigate a challenging stretch without the likes of Alan Pulido and Gianluca Busio – who are both away on international duty at the Concacaf Gold Cup. On Sunday, Duke did exactly that in a crucial moment.
"Well, I would just say that I'm very happy for him,” Vermes said. ”Sometimes I think guys have to prove to themselves that they could do certain things where they can play at this level, and I think at times for young players, what happens is doubt creeps into them a little bit.
“I think for Cam, at times you know he's had a little bit, ups and downs, maybe in his confidence. I think these last two games the way that he's approached the games has been tremendous for the team.”
The Sounders were riding high coming into this game, coming off arguably their most impressive win of their season so far: Thursday’s 1-0 victory over Austin FC that saw Brian Schmetzer roll out five teenagers in his starting XI.
As much as that meant to the club, Schmetzer noted that maintaining that level of energy on a short turnaround was something that gave the coaching staff some concern as they looked ahead to a formidable opponent in Sporting KC. As it turned out, those concerns were well-founded.
“We had talked internally about this being a trap game,” Schmetzer said. “You go into this game against an opponent that is right behind you in the standings, they were up for the game and the emotional high of what we accomplished in Austin – it was hard for the team emotionally it seemed like to get ready for this game.
“We talked about it as a group, we talked about it as a collective, not just with the coaches but with the players as well,” he continued. “It’s just hard sometimes to get back up on the horse and provide another inspired performance. I thought we were lacking that a little bit, that little of inspiration. We just didn’t have that. Plus there some performances that weren’t up to their standards, by senior players, by younger players. It just wasn’t up to the standard.”
The sky is far from falling in Seattle, even after taking the type of home defeat that's been exceedingly rare during the Schmetzer era at Lumen Field. Seattle are still 9W-2L-5D and remain atop the Western Conference at 32 points for the time being. And their roster should start gradually returning to full strength as players trickle back from international duty and a variety of injuries.
Even so, defender Shane O’Neill said it’s important to use the defeat as a moment of reflection, as the Sounders try to work through their first real stretch of adversity in 2021.
“Kansas City came in here with a pretty strong mentality, they came to win the game, maybe out-dueled us a little bit,” O’Neill said. “That’s a veteran group over there, so we know we’ve got to maybe this is a good turning point for us and a good sort of eye-opener where maybe we need to raise our level up again and come back stronger next week.”