KANSAS CITY, Mo. — During the opening minutes of the second half, Sporting Kansas City defensive midfielder Rémi Walter ran onto a back pass from Roger Espinoza and scuffed an unmarked chance from 20 yards and straight on goal.
Walter’s shot attempt barely even made it into the box as it skittered well wide toward the far left sideline.
“The first chance he had would have been a worldie,” right back Graham Zusi said. “That was not an easy shot. It came back out to him very fast and, unless you hit it absolutely perfectly, that’s a really difficult shot to hit. But obviously Rémi had a short memory and, when he got the second one, buried it.”
Despite the missed chance, Sporting KC had shown itself to be far more dangerous in the second 45 minutes during the home opener Saturday against the Houston Dynamo FC at Children’s Mercy Park.
Fortunately for Walter, he got a chance to atone in the 60th minute and didn’t waste it.
The attack again came from the right channel with right winger Johnny Russell playing a cross into the box behind center forward Khiry Shelton to left winger Dániel Sallói, whose initial shot was blocked.
As the ball rolled back toward the top of the Dynamo’s penalty box, Walter bombed forward and buried a low rocket into the left side of the net for the game’s first goal in a 1-0 victory.
“There was a lot of wind, so it was hard to have a great shot, but at that moment, I was focused on the ball and had a great shot,” Walter said. “It’s good because in training, I score a lot. That’s why coach calls me (Karim) Benzema, because I score a lot. This year, I want to try to have a lot of goals and a lot of assists, because I know I have the quality for that.”
In other words, it may be the first of many goals this season for Walter.
Sporting KC Manager and Sporting Director Peter Vermes said the French native and Ligue 1 veteran “kept climbing over the season” last year after an initial adjustment period.
“He’s come back completely different this season in that he just has a better understanding, a better confidence,” Vermes said.
With the victory, Sporting KC (1-1-0) improved to 5-1-6 in home openers since Children’s Mercy Park opened in June 2011. The lone loss came 2-0 against New York City FC in 2018.
“As far as we’re concerned, every home game we expect it to be a win,” Zusi said. “We treat this place as a fortress. With the atmosphere that’s created here and our ability to keep the ball and really break a team down, we expect to win games.”
With the loss, Houston dropped to 0-1-1 under first-year head coach Paulo Nagamura, who won an MLS Cup and two Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cups with Sporting KC as a player from 2012 to 2016.
Nagamura also served as a coach in the SKC system in a variety of capacities before the Dynamo hired him this offseason.
Shortly after new Sporting KC forward Marinos Tzionis subbed on for his Children’s Mercy Park debut, the Dynamo nearly leveled the game when some defensive miscommunication left goalkeeper Tim Melia caught off his line.
Darwin Quintero had a wide-open net to aim for with a chip shot over the top, but sent it wide left of the goal.
It was Houston’s best chance in an otherwise dominant performance by Sporting KC, which outshot Houston 15-5 and had more crosses into the box (16-9).
Before halftime, Sporting KC dominated possession, controlling the ball more than two-thirds of the time in the first half and outshooting Houston 6-1.
But only one shot was on target, and halftime arrived with the game still scoreless.
“Their line was deep, as deep as a lot of teams that have played here in the past, and the lines were on top of each other,” Vermes said. “At halftime, we talked about, ‘Hey, look, we’re going to play over the top a little bit, especially when we are in their half of the field with the ball and especially when the ball is on our left-hand side.'”
While first-half chances were few and far between, it marked a dramatic improvement for Sporting KC from the season opener when Atlanta United FC led 2-0 at intermission last Sunday.
“Patience was very good,” Zusi said. “We lacked maybe a little bit of the final pass, movement, finish, but I think that possession made them a bit tired and opened up things in the second half. We continued to be patient in the second half and, when we do that, eventually spaces are going to open.”
With starting defensive midfielder Uri Rosell sidelined with a hamstring injury, Walter dropped back from the right center midfield spot, where he started during the season opener at Atlanta.
Espinoza switched sides, sliding from left to right, while Felipe Hernandez got the starting nod at left center midfielder.
It was Hernandez’s first start since July 4, 2021, a day before he told club officials about a gambling addiction that led to a months-long suspension. Hernandez said he remains in recovery, which is going well, earlier in the week in a brief interview with KSHB 41.
The entire Sporting KC team wore black armbands during the game to honor Jenifer “Gigi” Evans Burton — the late twin sister of the club’s Chief Communications Officer Rob Thomson, who recently lost a seven-year battle with cancer. The team attended her funeral together on Thursday.
“I think it says a lot about Gigi that the whole team went out and honored her,” Zusi said. “She’s meant so much to so many people, and this little testament to her was really the least we could do, but I’m glad we could do it.”
The game also marked the return of Sporting KC's local broadcasts to KSHB 41's sister station, 38 The Spot.