Sporting On Song Against D.C. To Reclaim East’s Top Spot

Written by Ian Thomson

D.C. United traveled to Livestrong Sporting Park Saturday with an opportunity to move within one point of Sporting Kansas City in Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference with two games in hand.

The capital side’s chances seemed appealing despite a spate of injuries. Sporting had picked up just two points from their previous four home games and Peter Vermes’ men endured 120 minutes of tense drama three days earlier in lifting the U.S. Open Cup via a penalty shootout win over Seattle Sounders.

Instead, Sporting dug deep to produce a performance highlighting their major strengths – tenacity in defense to hound the opposition into turnovers high up the field; an aerial menace provided by Kei Kamara, Teal Bunbury and Aurelien Collin; impressively coordinated movements designed to free forwards from their markers; and an ability to launch direct attacks through the heading ability of Kamara and Bunbury or the overlapping runs of their full-backs.

Sporting’s misleading 2-1 win doesn’t reflect their dominance over D.C. United. Back-to-back wins in August have lifted Vermes’ side back to first place in the East and signaled an ominous return to form for their rivals as the post-season nears.

Line-Ups

Vermes’ starting 11 reflected Wednesday’s U.S. Open Cup exertions. Recent signing Neven Markovic replaced Seth Sinovic at left-back, Michael Harrington came in for Chance Myers at right-back. French central defender Collin returned in place of Lawrence Olum for his first action since suffering two facial fractures in a collision with Chelsea’s Michael Essien during the MLS All-Star Game on July 25.

Olathe, Kan. native Michael Thomas assumed the defensive midfield role with Brazilian veteran Julio Cesar dropping to the substitutes’ bench.

D.C. United’s ambitions were hampered by the loss of captain Dwayne De Rosario. The Canadian international was ruled out with a sore shoulder. Defenders Robbie Russell and Daniel Woolard and forwards Maicon Santos and Hamdi Salihi also missed out through injury.

Head Coach Ben Olsen handed Chinese striker Long Tan his first start alongside top scorer Chris Pontius. Left-back Mike Chabala made his debut after his midweek arrival from Portland Timbers.

Sporting Quickly Out Of The Blocks

Sporting’s starting 11 reflected the exertions from their midweek U.S. Open Cup Final win over Seattle Sounders

A favored Sporting ploy is to utilize the spring-heeled Kamara immediately from kick-off. This led to the game’s first shot after 12 seconds. Kamara, starting on the left wing, flicked Collin’s punt to center-forward Bunbury, who in turn found Paulo Nagamura striding toward the penalty area. The Brazilian midfielder’s shot deflected harmlessly through to United’s goalkeeper Bill Hamid.

Bunbury and Kamara exchanged roles on six minutes with the Canadian-born forward heading Jimmy Nielsen’s clearance into the path of Kamara’s cutting run. His shot was blocked, but Bunbury flicked the loose ball out left where Roger Espinoza had intelligently filled the space vacated by Kamara. The indefatigable Honduran shimmied past countryman Andy Najar before delivering a deep cross to the back post that was slightly too high for Kamara.

Hamid claimed Markovic’s cross on 10 minutes as Sporting favored the left wing with their early attacks. Matt Besler’s long throw from that side led to the opening goal on 13 minutes.

D.C. United defender Brandon McDonald won his aerial battle with Collin near the penalty spot, sending the ball upward rather than out of the penalty area. Collin won the second duel, looping a header toward goal that Hamid palmed away for a corner kick. Bunbury planted Graham Zusi’s outswinger into the net.

It was a wonderful header. Bunbury was running away from goal to escape the attentions of Pontius inside a cramped six-yard box, yet the 22-year-old still redirected his effort firmly inside Hamid’s unguarded back post.

Kamara curled a shot narrowly wide on 16 minutes after Zusi’s corner had been headed to the edge of the box. Hamid received a slice of fortune on 20 minutes when Bunbury laid the ball to Zusi in a similar position after Collin helped on Besler’s throw. The goalkeeper reacted late as Zusi’s shot traveled through a forest of legs. He managed to touch it against his left post before gratefully gathering the rebound.

Sporting can break their opponents down in many ways. Kamara and Bunbury possess pace and technical skills to supplement their heading ability. Collin ramps up the aerial threat when he joins the attack at corners, free kicks and Besler’s long throws. Zusi, Espinoza and Nagamura own the nous and passing range to pick holes in defenses, and Vermes’ full-backs stretch the play with their continual marauding down the wings. Harrington’s support led to another chance on 22 minutes.

Collin looked long for Bunbury’s run to the right wing. Harrington, pushed deep into D.C.’s half when Collin took possession inside his own half, seized on Chabala’s clearance and fed Nagamura in the inside-right channel. The former Arsenal trainee played a quick one-two with Bunbury to get behind D.C.’s defense before sliding a low ball across goal that right-back Chris Korb poked out for a corner. Collin evaded his markers on this occasion but bulleted his back-post header wide of Hamid’s goal.

Najar And DeLeon Combine To Pull United Level

Ben Olsen’s D.C. United lacked key players De Rosario, Santos and Russell

It’s hard not to be swept aside when Sporting’s relentless attacking waves lap against the penalty box. D.C., like so many other visitors to Kansas City during the past year, tried to keep tight defensively and wait for a mistake, an opportunity on the break or a set piece.

Pontius forced Nielsen to field his 25-yard shot in the opening minutes, and McDonald missed the target with a couple of early snapshots after pushing forward for a free kick and a long throw from Chabala.

Najar’s composure hauled D.C. level on 23 minutes with a goal out of nowhere. The teenager gathered Tan’s layoff on the right touchline with four Sporting players closing in. He shuffled inside Markovic to create a yard of space that allowed him to float the ball over Sporting’s defense toward Nick DeLeon at the far post. The rookie chested the ball back inside Harrington before sliding his shot under Nielsen from six yards.

Najar stayed cool despite facing a wall of defenders to pick out DeLeon (circled) making a run behind Sporting’s defense for D.C.’s equalizer

Sporting Remain Dominant After Setback

D.C.’s equalizer didn’t change the nature of the game. Sporting kept pushing forward with seven players camped inside D.C.’s half trying to work an opening. Collin and Besler spread so wide when they gather the ball inside their own half that it forces their full-backs up the touchlines. This in turn pushes Sporting’s wingers inside to look for space and makes them difficult to track.

Zusi, now on the left after switching with Kamara, made a diagonal run on 29 minutes to leave Markovic in space out wide. That gave the left-back three targets to aim for with his cross – Kamara, Bunbury and Zusi. D.C. defender Emiliano Dudar climbed highest to clear.

United couldn’t get designated player Branko Boskovic involved as an attacking force. Their difficulties were illustrated on 35 minutes when Perry Kitchen received the ball near the halfway line, facing toward his own goal, after a brief spell of possession. Sporting’s high press kicked in with six players quickly stepping up to force Kitchen into aimlessly punt the ball down field.

Sporting’s pressure forces Kitchen (circled in black) back toward his goal while Bunbury (circled in blue) cuts off a back pass

Hamid’s left post saved United again on 38 minutes after Bunbury teed up Nagamura to strike from 16 yards out. Zusi’s deep free kick on 40 minutes forced the once-capped United States international goalkeeper to push Thomas’ header wide to preserve parity at the interval.

Pressure Finally Tells As Zusi Finds Breakthrough

Olsen brought on Marcelo Saragosa for Boskovic at half-time to shore up the center of D.C.’s midfield. The change proved fruitless as Sporting continued their relentless march toward goal.

Hamid’s goal frame denied Zusi again on 53 minutes after another rapid attack from the hosts. Collin strode out of defense and laid the ball right to Harrington who in turn found Kamara’s feet as the forward dropped deep on the right wing. Harrington took the return layoff and delivered a first-time ball down the line where Bunbury made a surging run into the space left by Kamara. Bunbury dug out a great cross on the slide that Zusi directed against the underside of the crossbar.

D.C. didn’t capitalize on Sporting’s rare error when it arrived on 56 minutes. Chabala intercepted Besler’s sloppy pass out of defense and jumpstarted a counter that saw Najar releasing Tan behind the hosts’ disorganized back line. Collin sprinted back to make a vital last-ditch block, aided by the Chinese striker’s slight hesitation before getting his shot away.

It proved to be United’s last chance. Another slow build-up out of Sporting’s defense followed by a quick change of tempo led to Zusi’s game-winner on 63 minutes. Thomas stripped the ball from Kitchen and Sporting worked the ball back to Nielsen to start their move from scratch. D.C.’s midfield dropped off, allowing Besler to carry the ball unimpeded to the halfway line.

Kamara, playing on the shoulder of McDonald, dropped toward his center-back before spinning into the space behind Korb. Besler clipped a delightful pass into the space created, and Kamara controlled the ball before firing his cross toward the near post.

Neither Bunbury nor his marker Chabala could connect. Zusi arrived late in space at the back post, took a touch to set his feet, and drilled the ball between Hamid’s legs for his third goal of the season.

Zusi drills the game-winning shot between Hamid’s legs from close range

Olsen threw on former Kansas City Wizards star Josh Wolff for Tan with 19 minutes remaining. He switched to a 3-5-2 system for the final 10 minutes after bringing on Danny Cruz for Chabala. Najar moved to the left side and DeLeon advanced into the hole behind the two forwards.

D.C. threw a few late crosses into Sporting’s penalty box without fashioning any chances. Sporting comfortably held on to regain top spot in the Eastern Conference.

Conclusion

Sporting produced the type of swashbuckling display that saw them sweep to seven straight wins at the start of the season.

D.C. let the hosts carry the ball out of defense too easily on too many occasions, while Sporting’s full-backs and wide forwards exploited the defensive fragility of United’s young wide midfielders.

 

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