Keeper key in Sporting KC draw at Philadelphia

Jimmy Nielsen was all-star quality in Sporting Kansas City’s midweek contest against conference power Philadelphia Union.

Recording seven saves on seven shots on target, Nielsen single or double-handedly earned the team a precious point on the road (he also had a kick save). While the back line was decent, the keeper was the only thing keeping the scoreline respectable. Let’s look at the statistics:

Stat – Kansas City – Philadelphia Union

Shots – 8 – 26

Shots on goal – 0 – 7

Saves – 7 – 0

Fouls – 11 – 11

Offside – 2 – 1

Corners – 4 – 6

That’s right, twenty-six. That’s how many shots Philadelphia launched during 90 minutes of playing time. That’s easily a season high for a Kansas City opponent and a clear indication that the midfield and defense wasn’t closing on their marks quickly enough. On numerous occasions during the match Nielsen engaged in lengthy sprints to yell at teammates who were out of position or not marking properly. And he had every right to yell. Watching the game, there were several instances when Sporting midfielders could be seen walking or jogging back to mark a Union player with the ball. That’s not going to get it done and it wouldn’t have Wednesday if it weren’t for the professional play of Nielsen. At one point the announcers on KCMO remarked at how the defenders had hung Nielsen out to dry, only to have him make a fantastic diving save to thwart a free kick goal.

Sporting’s defensive backs were not completely to blame. For the most part they played well, even if the majority of the good work they did was in a recovering scramble. You can only place so much defensive blame on a team that records its fourth shutout in five games. It’s also possible the defense looked worse because there was absolutely no offense from Sporting KC. Through 90 minutes the team notched eight shots, none of which were on target. They didn’t even test the Union keeper. It’s the third time in the team’s entire history that players have failed to record a shot on goal. That just shouldn’t happen in a game.

Perhaps the absence of midfielder Graham Zusi played a part in the offensive lapse. The midfielder had been at least partly responsible for four goals in the past two games. Missing due to an ankle sprain, Sporting simply could not find an adequate substitute for Zusi’s creativity and current run of form.

It’s probably safe to go ahead and mark Wednesday’s game down as an off night for Sporting KC. The team was plagued by errant shots and an unusual number of errant passes. Despite the shortcomings and inefficiencies in the game on both sides for Kansas City, the team still managed to earn a point on the road from a team that still hasn’t lost at home.

Sporting has now left the field with at least one point in six straight matches. The current trend is promising for a side still looking for consistency in the lineup. Sporting holds league honors for longest unbeaten streak behind only the Chicago Fire and league leading LA Galaxy. That’s not a shabby turning of the tide for a team sitting in last place in the Eastern Conference.

Sporting Kansas City returns home to LIVESTRONG Sporting Park on Saturday for an evening match against the expansion Vancouver Whitecaps. Sporting will have the services of Aurelien Collin once again as he will return from his single game suspension. Sporting should also have defender Roger Espinoza back in the lineup as Honduras fell to Mexico in the CONCACAF Gold Cup Wednesday, freeing him of his national team obligations.

As ESPN noted in its power rankings for the league this week, Sporting has played itself back into playoff contention.

Let’s hope the trend continues.