Sporting Kansas City clinched top spot in Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference Wednesday night with a pulsating 2-1 win over Philadelphia Union at Livestrong Sporting Park.
The devastating speed of Sporting’s counter-attacking saw Union goalkeeper Zac MacMath twice picking the ball out of his net within 20 seconds of taking a goal kick. Kei Kamara was the architect of both goals, picking up two loose balls in midfield before accelerating forward to set up Jacob Peterson and C.J. Sapong.
It was a tough loss for the Union. Jack McInerney ruffled Sporting’s defense throughout the evening, and waves of Philadelphia pressure in the second half forced Sporting head coach Peter Vermes into a system change that allowed his team to regain control of the midfield.
Roger Espinoza’s absence with an ankle strain saw Haitian midfielder Peterson Joseph start alongside Paulo Nagamura in Sporting’s midfield with Julio Cesar in the holding role. Graham Zusi continued as one of Vermes’ two wide forwards, starting on the right side with Kamara on the left.
Philadelphia has produced some decent performances this season although results haven’t been going their way. Head coach John Hackworth fielded five players aged 22 or younger, led by 20-year-old McInerney who set a franchise record on Oct. 20 by scoring in four consecutive games.
Michael Farfan, Danny Cruz, and Trinidad and Tobago international Keon Daniel supported McInerney from deeper-lying areas. Vice-captain Brian Carroll and Panamanian veteran Gabriel Gomez anchored the Union’s midfield in a 4-2-3-1 formation.
Union Squeezed Back Until McInerney Finds Outlet
Sporting’s high-energy hustling began immediately. Seth Sinovic bore down on the visitors’ defense after three minutes to force Amobi Okugo into a hurried pass. The Sporting left-back intercepted the ball before bursting clear of his opponent. Okugo earned the game’s first caution from referee Ismail Elfath by hauling Sinovic to the ground.
Philadelphia’s defense was being forced into turnovers as six Sporting players pressed them back toward MacMath’s goal. Kansas City’s center-backs Aurelien Collin and Matt Besler pushed right up to the halfway line, catching McInerney offside when the Union cleared the ball down the center of the field.
McInerney quickly became attuned to Sporting’s tactic. A deeper starting position at least allowed him to chase Okugo’s long clearance on 25 minutes though Collin had a head start in the race. The Tennessean accelerated past the combative French defender and appeared to be tugged back as he attempted to lob Sporting goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen from outside the penalty box.
The young striker got a clean shot away 10 minutes later after astutely aligning himself with Besler while Collin stepped up to play the offside trap. McInerney ran through onto Gomez’s hooked ball forward to the right corner of the penalty area. His early chip bounced agonizingly wide of the far post with Nielsen stranded.
Sporting Rally To Gain Half-Time Advantage
Vermes had been forced into a change on 33 minutes when Nagamura suffered an ankle injury. Zusi dropped into midfield and Peterson filled the right-sided forward role. Sporting regained their stride and generated some late first-half pressure. MacMath kicked away Sapong’s near-post shot from Cesar’s cutback on 38 minutes following Zusi’s corner kick.
The breakthrough arrived two minutes later. Sinovic headed MacMath’s goal kick up the left flank and Kamara seized on the loose ball after a challenge with Union right-back Ray Gaddis. The Sierra Leone forward played a first-time pass into Sapong’s feet before sprinting down the left wing for a return ball played behind Philadelphia’s defense. Kamara delivered a perfect first-time cross into the penalty box between MacMath and his backtracking defenders, and Peterson surged forward to clinically thump his crisp shot low to the goalkeeper’s left. It took four players, six touches and 15 seconds to produce one immaculately constructed goal.
MacMath kept his team in the game in first-half stoppage time with a couple of vital saves. Poor defending by Carlos Valdes allowed Sapong to turn the Union captain on the touchline and cut the ball back to Zusi. MacMath thwarted the former University of Maryland midfielder’s right-foot shot, and the 21-year-old stopper quickly recovered to boot away Zusi’s left-footed rebound.
Hackworth’s Bold Change Puts Union In Charge
Philadelphia’s narrow midfield had made them susceptible to Sporting’s quick recycling of the ball from one flank to the other. Gaddis and left-back Michael Lahoud had occasionally been undermanned against Sinovic and Chance Myers’ marauding attacks while trying to track the cutting runs of Sporting’s wide forwards. Daniel, Farfan and Cruz had been neat in possession without providing any thrust in the final third.
Hackworth made a progressive switch at half-time by withdrawing Gomez and bringing on Antoine Hoppenot. The French-American forward moved up front in a 4-1-4-1 with McInerney dropping to the left of midfield and Carroll shielding the back four. Philadelphia now had an offensive threat across the full width of the field with Cruz lining up on the right.
Philadelphia demonstrated superb technical ability and composure on 48 minutes to pass their way out of defense under intense Sporting pressure. Their reward was the chance to catch the hosts short of numbers at the back after Gaddis and Cruz released Farfan on the right wing. Collin made a last-ditch interception at full stretch to prevent Farfan’s cross from reaching McInerney.
Sinovic picked up a yellow card on 50 minutes after being beaten by Cruz. The former D.C. United winger’s growing influence resulted in a penalty for the visitors two minutes later. Daniel started another impressive break after retrieving the ball at the edge of Philadelphia’s penalty box. Farfan released Cruz down the right wing again, and the 22-year-old stepped inside a hesitant Sinovic before driving into Sporting’s penalty area. Besler ended his run with a clumsy challenge.
Philadelphia had scored all previous 12 penalties awarded in franchise history. No. 13 proved to be unlucky for Farfan as Nielsen dived to his left to save the Southern Californian’s weak kick. Hoppenot reached the rebound first to bring his side deservedly back to level terms.
A disorientated Collin appealed for offside against Hoppenot and McInerney on 55 minutes as both players raced onto Okugo’s clearance from inside their own half, and Cruz blasted high and wide from 16 yards when he was wide open with just Nielsen to beat. Kansas City was being comprehensively outplayed on its turf.
The bullying from Philadelphia was merciless. McInerney picked the ball up on the edge of the Union’s penalty area on 57 minutes and spread it wide to Cruz who worked a quick give-and-go with Farfan to get behind the struggling Sinovic. McInerney made a box-to-box sprint to join the attack, and he powered a magnificent header toward goal from 18 yards after Farfan eliminated Collin with a deeply floated cross. Nielsen was beaten, yet the ball fortuitously stayed out after rebounding off the inside of the Dane’s far post.
Daniel struck the same upright again two minutes later with a skimming shot from 20 yards that had Nielsen scrambling down low to get the slightest of touches to it.
System Switch Gets Sporting Back On Track
Vermes urgently needed a tourniquet and he made a rare adjustment to his trusty 4-3-3 system. Oriol Rosell replaced Joseph on 66 minutes with the Barcelona youth product joining Cesar as a second holding midfielder to combat Daniel and Farfan’s elevated influence. Kamara, Zusi and Peterson formed a narrower three-pronged supporting line behind Sapong. Sporting began to stabilize, and Myers delivered a couple of teasing crosses from the right that put Philadelphia’s defense under duress.
The winner arrived on 82 minutes bearing an uncanny resemblance to Sporting’s first strike. Kamara picked up a loose ball just inside his own half following MacMath’s goal kick and he skipped around Carroll’s challenge before advancing toward the Union’s penalty area. Myers’ advanced presence on the right drew Lahoud’s attention and allowed Peterson to drift unchecked into the center, while Sapong’s simultaneous crossover run freed him from Valdes’ marking. Kamara slipped the ball into the penalty area for his center-forward, who drove a low shot between MacMath’s legs. This time the Union’s goalkeeper had been beaten 20 seconds after launching a goal kick into Sporting’s half.
A combined 35 seconds of flowing, incisive, counter-attacking brilliance from Sporting had been enough to overcome Philadelphia’s spirited display.
Sept. 20, 2012 — Sporting Shatter Red Bulls’ Home Record At A Canter
Aug. 28, 2012 — Red Bulls Frustrate Sporting In Tie, Almost Grab Win
Aug. 13, 2012 — Sporting On Song Against D.C. To Reclaim East’s Top Spot
May 14, 2012 — Unconvincing Red Bulls Hold On Against 10-Man Union