Aurelien Collin’s second-half header extended Sporting Kansas City’s winning start to the Major League Soccer season to six games Saturday as Peter Vermes’ side overcame Real Salt Lake 1-0 at Livestrong Sporting Park.
The game, pitting together the two teams who have been quickest out of the blocks this year, failed to live up to the preposterous hype that preceded it. Slack Salt Lake marking at Graham Zusi’s inswinging corner on 63 minutes allowed the hosts to edge an otherwise stalemated affair.
Vermes fielded the same starting line-up that beat Los Angeles Galaxy 1-0 on April 7 to become the first team since 1998 to open the MLS season with five wins.
Teal Bunbury remained on the bench following his return from the United States’ failed Olympic Games qualifying bid. C.J. Sapong started in the middle of Sporting’s three-man attack with Bobby Convey on the left and Kei Kamara on the right.
Salt Lake were also unchanged from the previous weekend when they beat Rocky Mountain rivals Colorado Rapids 2-0 at Rio Tinto Stadium. Key midfielders Javier Morales and Ned Grabavoy were sidelined with injuries sustained after coming off the bench in Real’s 1-0 win over Montreal Impact on April 4.
Head Coach Jason Kreis called upon 21-year-old rookie Sebastian Velasquez and 18-year-old Luis Gil to fill his midfield quartet alongside captain Kyle Beckerman and Will Johnson.
Kamara’s strength in the air has been overlooked during Sporting’s turnaround in the past year. The hosts tried to utilize the Sierra Leone forward’s heading ability straight from kick-off when Matt Besler aimed a long punt in his direction. Sapong, Convey and right-back Chance Myers sprinted fruitlessly in support for a flick-on on this occasion, though Sporting’s intent to swarm forward was quickly established.
Sporting’s defensive movement in Vermes’ high-energy system now runs like clockwork. Either Convey or Kamara move out to close down opposing full-backs when they receive the ball while Sapong cuts off the pass inside to the central defenders. Midfielders Zusi and Roger Espinoza push into a four-man line with the two wingers, backed up by Julio Cesar, to block any short forward passes. That forced Real’s full-backs Chris Wingert and Tony Beltran to turn back to goalkeeper Nick Rimando or risk turning the ball over by playing it long.
Real, however, excel in constructing long spells of possession. The visitors kept the ball well in the opening 20 minutes without creating any chances. Sporting’s opportunities were limited to an increasing stream of corner kicks. Convey overhit a trio of inswingers from the right while trying to pick out Collin at the back post. Zusi similarly struggled to provide accurate service from the left side.
A great example of Sporting’s pressing arrived on 26 minutes when Wingert found Fabian Espindola on the left near the halfway line. Myers immediately forced the Argentine forward back toward his own goal while Kamara, Zusi and Espinoza closed in to shut down Espindola’s passing options. Myers’ prodded the ball off the forward’s toes and suddenly Kamara threatened Real’s defensive third with a 5-vs-4 advantage for Sporting. Myers received a short ball on the overlap to send in a deep cross, but Beltran recovered at the back post to clear from Convey.
You don’t have to go too far back to recall the North American soccer media writing off Kansas City as a bunch of no-hopers. Sporting began last season with six points from a 10-game road stretch prior to Livestrong Sporting Park’s opening on June 9. The new stadium undoubtedly gave the team a lift. More significantly, Vermes’ players began to master the new system and tactics that they were being taught. Now we are seeing the other extreme – Sporting are being heralded as one of the greatest sides in MLS history and we’re only midway through April.
Sporting are a formidable opponent, but they are vulnerable. Houston Dynamo established the blueprint for how to beat them in last year’s Eastern Conference Final. Defend well and keep possession as far away from your own penalty box as possible. Keep your head up and don’t get flustered when under pressure. Wait for set pieces or to exploit the huge gaps that open up when Myers charges forward.
Real seemed to be following this script when Espindola broke clear on 32 minutes. Julio Cesar miscontrolled Nat Borchers’ clearance, allowing Alvaro Saborio and Gil to release the forward down the left channel. Espindola dragged his left-foot shot wide of Jimmy Nielsen’s far post from the edge of the penalty area as Collin and Espinoza chased back.
Saborio seized upon a Myers error three minutes later and promptly set about exploiting the space down the left with Espindola. Julio Cesar recovered to concede a corner.
Real weren’t posing a threat from set plays though, and Sporting’s delivery from their corner kicks was improving. Sapong looped a header over Rimando and into the net on 44 minutes. Referee Kevin Stott harshly ruled out the goal for an alleged push on Johnson as Convey’s cross arrived.
The French Connection
Vermes made the game’s first change on 51 minutes when Paulo Nagamura replaced injured countryman Julio Cesar. The pattern of play remained unaltered with the best chance of a goal still coming from set plays. Sapong narrowly missed the near post on 52 minutes when trying to redirect Espinoza’s driven free kick on target.
Sporting finally connected on 63 minutes to break the deadlock from their 10th corner of the game. Frenchman Collin headed home Zusi’s inswinger from the edge of the six-yard box after escaping Saborio’s attention.
Rimando prevented the hosts from doubling their lead from another Zusi inswinger on 75 minutes. The sprightly 5-foot-9-inch goalkeeper miraculously clawed Kamara’s point-blank header from his goal line.
RSL Change Shape In Hunt For Equalizer
Kreis had already brought on Northern Irish midfielder Jonny Steele for Velasquez on 64 minutes. Paulo Araujo Jr. replaced Gil on 76 minutes with the Brazilian forward moving up front between Espindola and Saborio. Vermes replaced Convey and left-back Seth Sinovic with Jacob Peterson and Michael Harrington in the closing stages as Sporting sought to seal their fifth shutout in six games.
Jamison Olave pushed into midfield to spur Real forward and the visitors finally forced Nielsen into action a minute into injury time. Collin’s insistence on pushing out from Beckerman’s deep free kick wasn’t followed by his teammates. Borchers stole in to head on target from the penalty spot, but his effort went straight to the goalkeeper.
It was the Dane’s first save in 335 minutes of play.
Both teams carried out their game plans with some success. Sporting pressed high up the field to unsettle RSL’s midfield. Real restricted Sporting to just three attempts on goal – Collin and Kamara’s headers from corner kicks and an unthreatening 30-yard shot from Zusi.
The absence of Grabavoy, who usually forms the left side of Real’s diamond, and Morales, who specializes in drifting out to the left side, hampered the visitors’ attempts to exploit spaces left by Myers on the counter-attack.
Sporting’s superior number of set pieces ultimately allowed them to edge a tight contest.