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On a soggy night in Kansas City, Kansas, captain Johnny Russell conjured a masterful comeback for Sporting Kansas City.
His two second-half goals were just what Sporting needed to beat the Houston Dynamo 2-1 on Wednesday in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup’s Round of 16 at Children’s Mercy Park.
Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes lauded Russell’s heroics after the match.
“It’s what the captain is supposed to do,“ Vermes said. “At the end of the day, that’s why he’s the captain. That’s why the guys respect him.”
Russell’s two goals give him 49 across all competitions with Sporting KC, good for fourth on the club’s all-time list. The second one gave him 12 game-winners since his arrival in 2018, including six since he became captain at the start of last season.
“He wins all the time,” Vermes said. “He wins in practice, brings it to the game week in and week out, and that’s why the team follows him.”
Houston led 1-0 at halftime after Corey Baird slipped between two Sporting KC defenders and put a shot past goalkeeper John Pulskamp shortly before intermission.
A quick tactical shift and a few substitutions helped Sporting find the final product in the final third. Russell scored his first goal in the 52nd minute with one of his patented, weaving runs.
After going to the turf, he scrambled back up and ripped a left-footed rocket past helpless Houston keeper Michael Nelson.
“We practice that so many times, I’ve been in that position so many times,” Russell said. “It’s just, I know where the goal is. (It’s) all about getting a good connection, getting it low and away from the keeper.”
Russell’s ability to find space while motoring in and out of defenders is a dazzling sight, one that becomes even more impressive when he puts his strike in the net.
“You don’t get a lot of time to plan things,” Russell said. “There’s certain things in my head that I want to do when I get the ball, but sometimes you just try to act off what you see. It’s not going to work every time, but I’ve made a bit of a habit of doing it.”
Russell’s second goal came on a penalty in the 73rd minute. Sporting winger Daniel Salloi won the kick in the 72nd and Russell stepped up to take it — and make it. And then Sporting KC held strong against Houston’s late push for an equalizer.
With Wednesday’s victory, Sporting will next play in the U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals against Union Omaha, a surprise 2-1 winner against Minnesota United in St. Paul on Wednesday.
Vermes made it known that his team won’t be taking Union Omaha lightly. Not after seeing the Owls knock out two other MLS teams on the road.
“They got this far for a reason,” Vermes said. “When that game comes around, believe me, we will do everything that we have to, to try to put our best group out there. And we will fight with everything we have because we know that’s gonna be an incredibly difficult game.”
The match against Union Omaha, a USL League One team, will be at Children’s Mercy Park on June 22 at 7:30 p.m.
Sporting KC (3-7-4) resumes MLS league play at home on Saturday against the Vancouver Whitecaps at 7 p.m.