It had to end sooner or later. Very few teams go undefeated at home the entire season in professional sports.
Saturday night saw Sporting KC fall at home for the first time this season against the Seattle Sounders, 2-1. Sporting led for most of the game before a questionable ejection left the players scrambling for the final 30 minutes of the contest. Despite creating chances, Sporting reverted back to a form fans haven't seen since the beginning of the season, allowing two goals in the last few minutes.
It was hard to watch as tired defenders lunged for balls and missed tackles. They kept going to ground, which is never an effective way to defend. You've always got to keep your feet moving and that's exactly the opposite of what happened.
The offense also sputtered late, making some poor decisions in the attacking third. Perhaps the most glaring mistake was Teal Bunbury's decision to not pass to a streaking Chance Myers, who likely would have put a shot on goal, if not score.
Give credit in the game to keeper Jimmy Nielsen, who made some spectacular saves before being hung out to dry by his back line. Credit is also due to Kei Kamara, who created chance after chance for his teammates.
While the end result was not desirable, perhaps the loss and end of the streak will allow Sporting to relax a little more moving forward. There were plenty of positives to take from the game and I wouldn't be surprised if the team at least attempted to appeal Omar Bravo's red card. Watching the replay it's clear he got ball. While the play may have been a foul, the straight red was a mistake by the official.
More to come later.
There is no quit in Sporting Kansas City.
There was no quit in the team when it embarked on a 10-game road trip to open the 2011 MLS season. There was no quit in the team when it lost and tied games by conceding last minute goals.
There was no quit in the team when it was sitting in last place in the entire league with a single victory and there was no quit in the team Saturday night against Chivas USA.
After what can probably be called the worst half of the team's season thus far, Sporting KC found a way back into the game in the second half. Players moved the ball well and created quality chances. If it weren't for spectacular saves from the Chivas keeper, the game could have been much different. Instead, Sporting had to claw its way back into a game that it trailed 1-0 for the majority of. The team had to stay in the game mentally after Kei Kamara's shot, destined for the upper corner, was swatted away. The team had to stay in the game when Omar Bravo's low driven header was pushed just wide of the post.
They had to stay in the game. And they did.
Inside the third of four added minutes, a little luck and a lot of 'right place at the right time' allowed Sporting to score and extend its unbeaten streak. Kudos to Bravo for continuing his run and staying in that final offensive push. He was rewarded with the goal.
Sporting Kansas City is still undefeated in LIVESTRONG Sporting Park. The team next competes in the U.S. Open Cup on Tuesday.
"It's really fun and special what we've got going right now and it never gets old."
That's how Sporting Kansas City midfielder Graham Zusi described the team's season after Wednesday night's draw against the Colorado Rapids.
The tie did a number of things for Sporting aside from continuing an unbeaten run in the league that has spanned the course of nine contests. It kept Sporting unbeaten in front of its home crowd at LIVESTRONG Sporting Park. It also put the team in sole possession of fourth place in the Eastern Conference, a far cry from dead last in the entire league, where Sporting was just one month ago. The turnaround in results has been impressive to say the least with the team — should its recent form continue — squarely in the playoff hunt.
The reason for the massive swing in fortunes is simple. Defense.
Through the first ten games of the season, Sporting KC allowed 19 goals. In a sport where scoring usually comes few and far between, letting your opponents find the back of the net nearly twice a game is fatal. In previous posts I mentioned Sporting's terrible mistakes, where in many instances during that 10-game road trip the defense or midfield gave the ball away and immediately conceded a goal. It was disheartening to watch them lose games and points the way they were.
Fast forward to today. In Sporting's last seven games the team has allowed just four goals. Four. That's a pretty incredible turnaround for a back line that had looked so out of sorts.
Credit the consistent starting lineup and Aurelien Collin taking the lead in the center for the change. Collin leads by example with his hard challenges and nearly-perfect timing. His presence in the air doesn't hurt either. Matt Besler is another defender whose game has definitely improved. His sliding tackles have been spot-on all season and he's been responsible for saving a goal or two all by himself. Those two in the back, complimented by Michael Harrington and recently Chance Myers, have held teams to one or fewer goals in the last 10 matches.
That defense will need to be on point once against tonight when Sporting takes on Chivas USA in front of the home crowd at LIVESTRONG Sporting Park. It'll be the second meeting between the two sides this season, with Sporting taking the victory back in March.
Chivas currently sits in sixth place in the Western Conference, but boasts the same number of points in the league as KC. Chivas will likely be without stellar defender Jimmy Conrad, who suffered a concussion earlier in the season. That means Sporting should have an easier time creating and taking chances in front of goal.
It'll be interesting to see if C.J. Sapong cracks the starting lineup Saturday with his recent run of good form. While a solid spark of energy off the bench on Wednesday, you've got to reward players who contribute in the positive ways Sapong has lately. I'd like to see him and Omar Bravo work together up top, with Sapong acting as a holding striker with his superior size.
Sporting's team will be largely unchanged from recent games and should be able to control the pace of the game against a Chivas side missing a critical player in the back.
Prediction: Sporting KC stays unbeaten at home with a 2-0 victory against Chivas USA.
Game: Sporting KC vs. Chivas USA
Time: 6:30 p.m.
TV: KCTV5 (Channel 5 or 205)
On a side note, the United States Soccer Federation has announced that should Sporting Kansas City advance to the semifinals in the U.S. Open Cup, that game will be held at LIVESTRONG Sporting Park.
Sporting Kansas City continues to accumulate points in the league, stretching its unbeaten streak to 11 games overall after a 1-1 draw against Colorado Wednesday.
The tie came after an inspired 2-1 victory on the road against the Portland Timbers during the holiday weekend. I was in Arkansas or I would have commented on that performance sooner.
Wednesday Sporting played well defensively and Aurelien Collin was once again a beast in the middle. He made some timely, clean tackles when challenged one v. one late in the game. He also avoided collecting a yellow card, which he's been apt to do lately. Colorado's first half goal was a great strike from a good position by Conor Casey. The partially screened shot gave keeper Jimmy Nielsen little time to react.
In the midfield the team was a little lacking in control. Many defensive clearances went straight to Colorado defenders and a few times even Colorado midfielders. The lack of play and possession through the middle for Sporting will need to improve in the next few weeks if the team wants to stay in contention come playoff time.
Sporting's strikers played well, recording 14 shots for the game, though only four were on target.
No stranger to playing from behind, Sporting went to work. The game-changer in this contest though came in the form of a substitute.
Manager Peter Vermes made a change in the second half to bring in form C.J. Sapong on in place of Teal Bunbury. Many could argue that Sapong should have started the game. Either way, the youngster's fresh legs gave him the edge up top and he was able to hold off a defender long enough to shoot. The rebound rolled to Graham Zusi, who finished the chance easily to regain control of the game and cement at least one point in front of the home crowd.
In all reality, Sporting was unfortunate not to come away with all three points after three shots rattled off either a post or crossbar.
The team will have a few days to rest and prepare for Chivas USA at LIVESTRONG Sporting Park Saturday.
The results just keep on coming for Sporting KC. After its brutal 10-game road trip at the beginning of the 2011 MLS season, the team has gone unbeaten in seven league games since opening LIVESTRONG Sporting Park.
Seven games without a loss is impressive, but Sporting Kansas City has also won its last two Open Cup games, securing a spot in the quarterfinals of the tournament.
That spot in the elimination portion of the tournament came with a dominating 3-0 performance Tuesday evening against Chicago Fire PDL (Premier Development League). In a game Sporting was expected to win, it did not disappoint, scoring in the third minute and not letting up. Three more performances of that kind will net the team some silverware.
The victory continued the team's form from the weekend, which saw Sporting respond to the first goal scored against them in the new stadium. The players rallied and with the help of a correctly called penalty kick took a 2-1 lead into the halftime break. Though the defense was a little shaky in the second half, Sporting hung on to secure another three points in the conference.
The recent run of form and surplus of points has gotten Sporting KC out of last place in the conference and into the middle of the playoff hunt. Sporting currently sits nine points out of the top spot.
The news, as has often been the case with Sporting this season, was not all good this week. Captain Davy Arnaud is scheduled to have sports hernia surgery in California next Wednesday. The surgery, which kept striker Omar Bravo out of the lineup earlier in the season, is expected to sideline Arnaud for as many as six weeks. Arnaud is the longest tenured player on the team and ranks second all-time on the clubs games played list.
The injury blow comes at a time when the team has finally figured out how to play together with the personnel available. The loss of midfielder Arnaud deprives the team of poise and experience at a crucial position. The captain kept a positive attitude when asked about the procedure and time away from the game.
"I'm a quick healer and will work hard to get back on the field," he said. "I will do whatever it takes to return and contribute on the field."
Though it's never easy to shuffle starting players, Kansas City has had to do it rather frequently this season. The team's recent form should make transitioning a new player into the mix a little easier.
That's good news for Sporting KC, who travel to face the expansion Portland Timbers this Saturday. Portland is coming off a 4-0 loss to FC Dallas last week and will be looking to rebound from the poor performance in front of what has been a stellar crowd this season. Kansas City will have to continue creating chances and finishing in front of the net if they want to take anything more than a point away from the west coast.
Women's World Cup
There's been plenty of soccer to speak of the last few weeks. Perhaps most notably this week was the beginning of the FIFA Women's World Cup. The U.S., though shaky in the first half of a 2-0 victory, is one of the favorites to advance deep into the tournament. The team's game against North Korea Tuesday showcased the superior size and speed of the U.S., which looked in control for the majority of the contest despite some expected first-game lapses. The next game for the women comes on July 2 at 11 a.m.
The Men's national team didn't have the best Gold Cup final showing against Mexico.
A clear underdog, the United States took a surprising 2-0 lead early in the first half. If I know anything about the Mexican style of play, I know that they never quit. Even with a 2-0 lead, I never felt that the U.S. was safe.
That proved to be true as Mexico, with its faster, more skilled forwards tore the US defense apart for the next 60 minutes. The 4-2 final scoreline doesn't do the Mexican team's effort justice, as they completely dominated the game after the second U.S. goal. The 2/3 Mexican crowd at the packed Rose Bowl didn't help matters, either. Mexico will have a good team for years to come if it can avoid further doping charges and players like Chicharito and Dos Santos stay healthy. The one bright spot for the U.S. team was the play of Freddy Adu, who was the best American on the field by far.
The U.S. still has a long way to go. The team needs to find faster, stronger defenders as well as forwards who can consistently score against top competition (penalty kicks don't count Landon Donovan). Until that happens the team will struggle in international tournaments. People often overlook the fact that the U.S. led for only a few seconds in its 2010 World Cup outing. How coach Bob Bradley still has a job is beyond me.
The Under-17 U.S. team had a disappointing final two games in the group stage of the youth World Cup. Losing to Uzbekistan and playing to a scoreless draw against New Zealand was probably not the way the team wanted to advance to the next stage. Limping in rarely results in deep runs at the national level. The U.S. takes on red-hot German team Thursday that has scored 11 and conceded one goal in three group stage games. I'm looking for the U.S. to get rocked by a big, physical side at 3:45 p.m. on ESPN3.com.
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.
Sporting Kansas City's sudden run of good form will be tested Wednesday night when the team travels to take on the Philadelphia Union, one of the conference's top teams.
The team heads into the midweek contest following the unfortunate news that midfielder Ryan Smith will not be available the remainder of the season as he tends to family issues. The 24-year-old England native had spent most of the 2011 season on the bench recovering from surgery and most recently nursing an injury. When Smith did see playing time though, he was effective. His ability to beat his defender created some chaos for opposing teams and opened gaps for the forwards to fill. Smith also recorded one goal on three shots on target, stats the team no doubt would have liked to see him replicate as the season progressed.
Even with Smith out of the picture, the midfield doesn't lose much beside an extra sub. With Kei Kamara, Graham Zusi and Luke Sassano playing well of late, it's likely the team won't suffer at all. It helps that the team has had to play without Smith for the majority of the season. There should be little to no real adjustment required.
That's the one bit of good news Sporting KC can take into the Eastern Conference clash Wednesday.
Here's the bad news:
Philadelphia Union are unbeaten at PPL Park this season. In seven games they've won three and tied four. They've also only conceded four goals in those games, showcasing solid defensive pressure throughout.
Philadelphia has scored eight goals in its seven home games. That offensive proficiency doesn't bode well for a Sporting KC side that will be without central defender Aurelien Collin because of yellow card accumulation and defender Roger Espinoza because of Gold Cup duty. Add to that the potential return of Philadelphia's second-leading goal scorer Carlos Ruiz and you have a very intimidating situation.
To have a chance to take three points on the road, Sporting Kansas City will have to control the ball in the midfield much better than it has in recent games. While the long ball to Kamara in the corner is an effective way to drive crosses into the box, it's not the most effective way of creating actual scoring chances. If Sporting KC can win the possession battle, the team should be able to use the speed and size of CJ Sapong to help break down the Union's back line. Bravo is also overdue for a goal, so look for him to get himself in the mix with his feisty style.
The difference in this game may well come down to momentum. Kansas City is unbeaten in its last five games. Philadelphia is coming off a loss on the road to expansion team Vancouver.
Prediction: There will be a goal in this game and I'm going to give it to the team with the most road experience and the best recent form. Sporting Kansas City takes this one and extends its unbeaten streak to six games by a score of 1-0.
Game: Sporting Kansas City at Philadelphia Union
Time: 6:30 p.m.
TV: KCMO (channel 3 for standard def., channel 203 for HD)
Other soccer action
• Sporting KC won't be the only team garnering attention Wednesday evening. The U.S. Men's National Team will also be in action against Panama in the semifinals of the Gold Cup. The national team is coming off its most impressive performance of the tournament, a 2-0 victory against a streaking Jamaica. This game is a rematch of the national squad's 2-1 defeat against Panama in the group stage. If Bob Bradley can't figure out how to motivate the players for this one, his days at the helm should be numbered. The U.S. should be the favorite to advance to the final, which will likely be a meeting with Mexico. This game will be on Fox Soccer Channel and Univision.
• The FIFA U-17 (under 17 years old) World Cup began last week. The U.S. team blasted its first group opponent Czech Republic 3-0 to get things rolling. The team plays Uzbekistan Wednesday at 2:45 p.m. local time. I looked into it and only found the game on ESPN3.com. Knology says it's live on Thursday, which goes against the tournament's official site and ESPN. It's worth a look for any fan of the game. The style is much more wide open and there are plenty of scoring chances (Uzbekistan had 24 shots on goal in its opening round loss).
Sporting Kansas City recorded its first goal and first victory in newly opened LIVESTRONG Sporting Park Friday evening. The game itself was not very pretty. There was little flow and possession between Sporting and San Jose flip flopped constantly.
The defining moment of Sporting KC's 1-0 victory was, of course, the goal. A free kick taken by Graham Zusi, who in the last two contests has bagged two goals and two assists, was driven into the box and met by a streaking CJ Sapong. There was nothing the San Jose keeper could do to stop the redirect.
Sporting continued to create chances through the remainder of the first and all of the second half, but couldn't find a way to put any more balls in the net. The offensive pressure dipped and led to San Jose setting up a shooting gallery of sorts. Sporting's back line did well to prevent any solid looks, and Sporting walked away with its second victory in as many games.
The result is even more impressive given San Jose's recent form. The visitors Friday rolled in on a hot streak, having won four of their previous five matches. Defense, along with Kei Kamara's sideline runs, helped hold off the Earthquakes long enough to secure the three points.
Sporting KC now sits with 13 points in the Eastern Conference. Earning seven points out of a possible nine during the last three games, Sporting has put itself within one victory of the top half of the table.
The team will once again take to the road for a Wednesday match against conference opponent Philadelphia Union.
Sporting Kansas City: 4 — FC Dallas: 1
It's been a long time coming but Sporting KC finally put a full 90 minutes together on both sides of the ball. Graham Zusi played with confidence and it showed. His two superb goals were the clear difference against a FC Dallas side sitting in second place in the Western Conference.
Apart from one defensive lapse that saw Dallas player Brek Shea beat four defenders before passing the ball by Eric Kronberg, Sporting Kansas City did everything right. Missing some key players to national team duties and with Kei Kamara coming off the bench, Sporting looked like the team we've seen glimpses of all season.
Most importantly, Sporting earned three crucial points on the road. The victory puts them one or two victories from being right back in the thick of the Eastern Conference standings. With a nine-game home stand slated starting in July, this could be just the boost the team needs to make a serious run in the standings.
More to come tomorrow.
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.)