Sporting Kansas City clocked up their seventh straight win to start the Major League Soccer season after an enthralling 3-1 win at Vancouver Whitecaps Wednesday.
Goals from Aurelien Collin and Kei Kamara either side of a Martin Bonjour own goal gave Peter Vermes’ side a commanding three-goal lead before Sebastien Le Toux nodded a late consolation for the hosts.
This was arguably Sporting’s sternest test to date – traveling north of the border four days after a hard-fought 1-0 win over Real Salt Lake to face a rejuvenated Whitecaps squad. They weathered intense spells of pressure to move 11 points clear atop the Eastern Conference.
Vancouver Head Coach Martin Rennie made one change from his team’s 3-1 defeat at San Jose Earthquakes on April 7. Atiba Harris lined up on the right side of the attack. Jun Marques Davidson dropped to the bench.
Vermes made one change from last Saturday’s win over Salt Lake. Paulo Nagamura replaced the injured Julio Cesar in the deep-lying midfield role.
There are parallels to be drawn between these two sides. Vermes took over an abject Kansas City Wizards team in August 2009. Only four of the 18 players from his first game – a 2-0 home defeat to Chicago Fire – remain at the club: Matt Besler, Roger Espinoza, Michael Harrington and Graham Zusi.
Progress was made in 2010 although the Wizards fell seven points short of reaching the play-offs. It wasn’t until last June, following the club’s rebranding, the opening of Livestrong Sporting Park and a 1-6-4 start to the season, that Vermes’ modern system and tactics finally started to click with his overhauled roster. Sporting has now gone 21-4-8 in 33 MLS games since including the post-season.
Vancouver hope for a similar turnaround with Rennie. The Scotsman is trying to implement his brand of modern attacking football that brought success to North American Soccer League side Carolina Railhawks. More than half of the 18-man Whitecaps squad that fought back from three goals behind to tie 3-3 with Sporting in their first MLS encounter a year ago have since left the club.
Both Rennie and Vermes look to flood the opposition’s half in the attacking stage. The wide threat posed by Vancouver’s Davide Chiumiento and Harris kept Sporting’s attacking full-backs Chance Myers and Seth Sinovic back in their own half in the opening stages.
Many of Sporting’s attacks begin with the full-backs, aided by their tireless midfielders and wingers, driving their opponents back over the halfway line where their passing options are limited. A wonderful turn by Chiumiento on 10 minutes showed what can happen if you can escape Sporting’s clutches.
The Swiss forward showed for a pass from Jay DeMerit before brilliantly spinning inside Myers while receiving possession. Chiumiento attacked the space created as Eric Hassli peeled left, dragging Collin from the center, and slid a pass through for Le Toux at the edge of the penalty area. The French striker passed up a decent shooting chance by trying to find the offside Harris.
A last-ditch tackle by Collin on the edge of his penalty area three minutes later denied Hassli after Gershon Koffie dispossessed Espinoza in midfield. Sporting goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen had to be equally alert seconds later when Hassli flicked Joe Cannon’s long punt into Le Toux’s path.
Collin prevented his countryman Le Toux from getting a header on target on 17 minutes with some robust defending that could easily have resulted in a penalty kick. Hassli and Koffie combined to release Lee Young-Pyo down Vancouver’s right side. The South Korean cut inside Bobby Convey before sending a dangerous cross into the center. Collin heavily impeded the former Philadelphia Union forward by wrapping an arm around his body.
The physicality between the pair continued. Collin received a yellow card for dumping Le Toux into the advertising hoardings a minute later.
Collin was a bigger nuisance for Vancouver on 24 minutes when he gave his side the lead. None of the Frenchman’s teammates attacked his initial knockdown from Zusi’s deep corner kick. Zusi’s second cross found Collin and Bonjour battling at the back post. Espinoza fired the breaking ball toward goal only for it to deflect fortuitously back to Collin. The defender prodded it over the line from three yards to notch his third goal of the season.
Vancouver Attack, Sporting Look To Counter
The Whitecaps quickly regained their forward momentum despite the setback. Lee won another duel against Convey on 28 minutes to set up Le Toux with his cross. The Frenchman’s header was too close to Nielsen.
Zusi’s diligent back-tracking to the edge of his penalty area forced Koffie to shoot high after Besler turned the ball over to Le Toux a minute later. Le Toux missed the target with a difficult chance on 42 minutes after Hassli’s shot was blocked. Sporting survived another scare a minute later when Harris was flagged offside after Nielsen missed his punch to clear the forward’s initial cross.
Still, it was Sporting who created the half’s best chance since Collin’s goal following an excellent move that illustrated their players’ understanding of each other’s movements.
Sinovic’s overlapping run down the left on 39 minutes allowed Convey to cut inside and find C.J. Sapong. The young forward cushioned a layoff into the space vacated by Convey for the onrushing Espinoza. The industrious Honduran charged toward the penalty area untracked before picking out Kamara. There are few better in the air than Kamara in MLS, but the winger uncharacteristically miscued his header well off target from 10 yards.
Second Half Sucker Punch For Caps
Vancouver’s telepathic knowledge of each other’s runs is also improving under the coaching of Rennie and assistants Paul Ritchie and Carl Robinson. Koffie, Le Toux and Hassli combined on 49 minutes before Chiumiento arrived to join the attack. Hassli’s pass just evaded his surging teammate.
The Whitecaps’ efforts to draw level were severely compromised two minutes later due to Bonjour’s unfortunate own goal. Sporting’s regular set-piece routine saw Kamara leap for Besler’s long throw at the near post with DeMerit and left-back Jordan Harvey. The ball evaded the trio and struck Bonjour before nestling in Cannon’s bottom-left corner.
Sinovic nearly matched Bonjour’s feat when he sliced a volleyed clearance from the edge of his penalty area toward his own goal. Nielsen back-pedaled to bail out his teammate with a full-stretch tip over his crossbar.
Rennie replaced John Thorrington with Camilo Sanvezzo on 60 minutes, leaving Koffie as Vancouver’s only defensive shield. Sporting kept up their speed and intensity, and Kamara atoned for his first-half miss five minutes later to increase the visitors’ advantage.
The Sierra Leone international pounced on a loose ball in midfield after Chiumiento cut out Zusi’s intended pass. Myers finally found space to advance down the right and he sent a low cross toward the near post. Kamara sprinted ahead of Bonjour and beat Cannon with a delicate flick over the advancing goalkeeper.
Caps Can’t Repeat Last Year’s Comeback
Vancouver had been trying to unsettled Sporting’s defense with early long balls for Hassli to flick on to the supporting forwards. The tactic worked in that Nielsen was forced into his busiest game of the season, but he still remained unbeaten.
Omar Salgado added some additional height and zest to Vancouver’s attack when he replaced Harris on 79 minutes. The hosts finally broke through within a minute.
Hassli beat Collin in the air again to flick Lee’s cross on to Chiumiento on the left wing. The 27-year-old dug out a cross despite Myers’ close attentions and Camilo headed against the bar from 10 yards. The lurking Le Toux stooped to net the rebound as Myers played the striker onside from his position near the corner flag.
Nielsen produced a great double-save to thwart Camilo and Hassli on 83 minutes as Vancouver piled forward. The Dane made one final vital stop, beating out substitute Long Tan’s injury-time effort after the Chinese striker juggled the ball into a shooting chance at the edge of the box.
Vancouver deserves credit for the way they tried to impose their style on the league’s runaway leaders. The Whitecaps registered 18 shots on goal to Sporting’s eight and forced Nielsen to make six saves while four other attempts were blocked. The unfortunate Cannon conceded three goals from two shots on target.
Sporting, however, showed a hunger, focus and intensity to win the ball that hasn’t been seen previously in MLS.