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LAFC tops Sporting KC 2-1 in stunning last-minute thriller

LOS ANGELES — It almost didn’t happen.

The referee had signaled for stoppage time and the scoreboard was stuck at 90 minutes, the score tied 1-1. After falling early in the game, then tying up the score, LAFC had spent the past 43 minutes of its home opener tied with Sporting Kansas City, and the crowd inside Banc of California stadium seemed resolved to finish with a draw.

But then, Adama Diomande happened. The forward collected the ball from Jordan Harvey inside the box, baited two defenders left, then cut back. With a powerful strike from his left foot, he smashed the ball between the keeper’s hands, just feet in front of the North End.

What came next was a staple of any LAFC game day: Showers of beer. A sea of waving flags. Joyful raucous roar from the sold-out crowd. Diomande ran straight to the supporters section, where he was wrapped up in the arms of fans, one of whom baptized the game’s star with a full cup of beer over his head.

Soccer returned to downtown Los Angeles on Sunday night in a primetime showdown between LAFC and Sporting KC. The night fell into the same aggressive style as it had on two occasions last season, with plenty of fouls racked up on both sides. But with Diomande’s final strike, the team turned a frustrating and physical match into a 2-1 victory and a celebration of what’s to come in LAFC’s second MLS season.

“I’m a striker that not only wants to be in the box, I want to be part of the game,” said Diomande, who sat out the first half and came off the bench in the second. “I’m just up for it and happy we got the win. ”

>>>Watch: Diomande’s wicked game-winner<<<

From the first seconds, the name of the game was simple for LAFC — disrupt, disrupt, disrupt. When given the chance to build a structured attack, Sporting KC quickly becomes lethal on offense, and the Black and Gold focused early on pressuring its opponent on every inch of the field.

At first, that method paid off. The LAFC attack forced Sporting KC onto its heels and created opportunities for corner kicks and shots on goal within the first 10 minutes. In the 5th minute, captain Carlos Vela darted behind the backline to take a one-on-one with the keeper, nutmegging him to incite a roar from the crowd. But the din faded quickly as the referee waved the goal off for an offside call. Quickly, the game began to fall into Kansas City’s favor.

Settling into its attack, Sporting KC began to dominate the tempo and possession. In the 16th minute, the visitors clogged up the right side of LAFC’s backline, then flipped the ball to forward Johnny Russell on the opposite side of the pitch. Russell slipped the ball through a gap to Krisztián Németh, who buried it past Tyler Miller’s fingers in the bottom left corner.

The lead did little to quiet the LAFC crowd. In fact, it only served as fuel, especially as Sporting KC began to rack up yellow cards in an increasingly chippy match. Before scoring its goal, Kansas City had already picked up one yellow card; in the following half hour, it collected four more. Vela hit the ground more than once, taking hard knocks outside the box on more than one occasion, and midfielder Lee Nguyen limped off the field after a full-body tackle from Németh in the 42nd minute.

“I think we are a team that creates advantages and has an attacking mentality,” head coach Bob Bradley said. “So you see teams try to disrupt the way we play. When you want to disrupt a game, you do it with fouls. That’s part of the game sometimes.”

Yet despite an ample supply of free kicks — 17 in all — the home team couldn’t find a way to close on its opportunities in the first half. LAFC began to regain possession as the half wore on and took seven shots, placing three on frame. Yet the connection between many of the main pieces of the attacking front lacked the cohesive chemistry that highlighted last year’s success. The connection between Vela and forward Diego Rossi was particularly missing. The pair failed to connect on a series of through-balls throughout the half.

“It was a tough match,” said Harvey, who celebrated his 300th MLS game on Sunday. “Guys were pretty tired. It was a real test for the first game of the season and we’re real proud to have stepped up to it. Kansas City came at us right in the beginning. I thought that guys battled so hard from top to bottom. It was a huge team effort.”

But in the second half, it was Rossi who once again delivered for LAFC. What feels like a lifetime ago, he scored the team’s first-ever goal in its season opener. Now, in the team’s second-ever home opener, with Sporting KC leading by a goal, No. 9 took the game into his hands again.

Less than two minutes into the second half, Rossi sized up a defender on the left side of the box and dodged left. He cut back right and immediately met a body — the game had already been chippy, with five yellow cards awarded in the first half. Instead of yielding, Rossi muscled past his defender. The second he saw a half-foot of space, he took the shot. It screamed past the backline, past the keeper’s gloves and into the right side of the net. The crowd exploded, almost shocked at the swiftness of the score as Rossi repeated history.

“I don’t think we showed our best in the hardest games of last year,” head coach Bob Bradley said. “Tonight is a positive for us in that respect.”

With the goal, the team regained even footing against Sporting KC, but that did little to slow the opponent’s attack. The shots kept coming, and with them the fouls. Sporting KC picking up one more yellow and a red card in the second half to tie its previous record for cards in a game.

The red went to Roger Espinoza after he picked up his second yellow card in the 84th minute. Sporting KC closed out the match with 10 men.

Despite the furious attack from Sporting KC, the team’s greatest challenge was its own inability to finish opportunities. The team took 14 shots, but failed to close out open opportunities. Mark-Anthony Kaye suffered a series of close calls from point blank in the box; corner kicks whizzed just shy of Walker Zimmerman’s head; and Nguyen struggled to connect his passes to wide-open players on the back side. Finish any of these opportunities and LAFC would have gone from good to great, from threatening to downright lethal.

But Diomande’s finale in the box redeemed the game of its many flaws.

Before the game, players and coaches alike agreed that its outcome would set the tone for the season. Sporting KC bested LAFC twice in 2018, and a third loss or a draw might have signaled more of the same was to come. With the victory, LAFC sent a message — right out of the gate. this is a team ready to compete for the Western Conference title.

“Part of being a good team is your mentality and your ability in hard games to have resiliency,” Bradley said. “That was a game where we put the most together from start to finish. That’s the sign of a team that is going in a good direction.”

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