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LIVESTRONG Sporting Park opens with entertaining scoreless draw
For not winning a game, the home opener for Sporting Kansas City against the Chicago Fire at LIVESTRONG Sporting Park Thursday night still felt like a victory.
The atmosphere created by the fans in the hours leading up to the opening kick were the same as any other major sporting event in the area. People were grilling and drinking in the parking lots. Fans were breaking out in team chants by their cars. People who didn't know each other mingled and talked about the sport, the stadium and the team. Live music outside the stadium along with the usual slew of snack and drink vendors created a relaxed environment. There were fans of all ages wearing all manner of soccer fan attire.
The stadium was full of people, all grabbing what apparel they could, even with the registers down and a cash-only policy in place throughout most of the venue. It was the only glitch on an otherwise memorable opening day.
I attended the game with a group of friends Thursday, sitting in the general admission section in the stadium's south stands. The seats were comfortable and there was plenty of leg room, something I'm usually not accustomed to at sporting events. We ended up sitting about seven rows from the field behind what would be Chicago's net the first half.
Fans, even those who purchased the standing-room-only tickets, were treated to pre-game festivities that included fireworks, Lance Armstrong and a stealth bomber flyover. Everyone seemed pumped for the game.
When it finally did, the first 45 minutes were impressive. Sporting Kansas City created a number of chances, several of them good. Fans couldn't help but stand every time the Sporting players made a run down one of the wings. People held their breath as balls were played into the box. Everyone wanted to see that first goal.
And they did. Kind of.
About 15 minutes into the inaugural match, Kei Kamara played a ball low into the box. Omar Bravo seemed to botch the shot attempt and the ball trickled through to a streaking Graham Zusi. He passed the ball into the net with authority and the crowd around me exploded. From where we were sitting the run of play seemed to be within the rules. The linesman had called Bravo offside, so the goal was disallowed.
The intensity didn't die down much for the rest of the half. Sporting created a few more quality chances but couldn't find the back of the net. The crowd cheered loudly when keeper Jimmy Nielsen was first called into action. His save in the opening 20 minutes was fantastic, blocking a shot to the near post away effectively. There was a collective sigh of relief from the fans who know all too well the quick change in fortunes that has dominated the team's early-season headlines. There were no fatal errors made in the first half. The team played well from top to bottom. Teal Bunbury couldn't find a touch near the box all half, but his presence seemed to created some mismatches with the defense.
The second half started out with the same energy. Sporting moved the ball well but started giving away too many balls in the midfield. Chicago opted to play balls over the top of the defense for the majority of the second 45. Luckily for Sporting, Aurelien Collin, stationed at center back, was on his game. He went up hard for every ball and won the majority of them. When he didn't, the ball trickled harmlessly back to Nielsen.
Until Nielsen got ejected.
Most of the 19,925 fans expected to see a goal. They almost did when Chicago's Dominic Oduro found himself alone with only a charging Nielsen left to beat. Odura beat Nielsen to the ball and played what would have been a perfectly weighted chip over the keeper. Then Nielsen, maybe on instinct, maybe knowing he was beat, played the ball with his hands outside the box. In all my watching days, that's what I'd call a professional foul. Instead of taking the lead in the game, Chicago gained a man advantage and a free kick. The team squandered both. They would manage to hit the crossbar on a gaffe by Sporting's replacement keeper Eric Kronberg, but that was the extent of Chicago's true scoring chances.
The second half of the contest had just about everything. There were mistakes, close misses, good defense, cheers, drums, questionable calls...and of course a fan running on the field. I don't mind the random fan getting arrested at baseball games or football games, but soccer is different. There is an important flow to the game that can cause things to change in an instant. The fan, who chose the dying minutes of a close game for his stunt, could well have ruined any flow Sporting had built while down a man. Security will need to be a bit quicker if it happens again, which I hope it doesn't.
The most controversial moment in the game was not the security tackling the fan dressed as a cow though. It was a no-call on a hard foul in the box that probably should have resulted in a game-winning penalty kick for Sporting. Bravo had a ball played to him and made a strong move into the box, only to be hip checked by the Chicago defender. No whistle was blown. That may have been the loudest moment in the stadium. All boos. The replays shown on the big screen showed a pretty clear foul.
No call was made and even nine minutes of stoppage time couldn't separate the two teams. The first game played at LIVESTRONG Sporting Park ended in a scoreless draw.
After the game, manager Peter Vermes talked about the difference playing in front of a home crowd makes.
"I think the crowd can affect you in a lot of ways. I think that was a big thing we miscalculated on the 10-game road trip, that there is a complete disconnect with the fan base. You almost lose your sight on who you're playing for. We never really got too much love in those places. When you come home, the crowd is like the 12th man and tonight they for sure were."
Sporting Kansas City doesn't have much time to rest. The team travels to Texas to take on FC Dallas Sunday.
(Most of these photos are courtesy of LJWorld photographer Kevin Anderson. You can probably tell which one is mine.)