The most interesting stat of Sporting KC's game against the Columbus Crew on Saturday was the scoreline. It wasn't interesting because the Crew scored and won at home 1-0, It was interesting because Sporting Kansas City, one of the top offensive teams in the league, was shut out.
The Crew are no stranger to tight defensive play. They recorded their fourth straight shutout Saturday. On the season they have allowed just three goals in five games. All three of those came in the team's first contest of the year against D.C. United. In Saturday's game, the defense looked just as sharp. While they may have lacked a little focus in the first half, they certainly made up for it in the second. The Crew have been dominant defensively since their first contest of the 2011 campaign. They have now played 373 minutes without allowing a goal. That's tops in the league.
For Sporting KC, the result Saturday raises some concerns on both sides of the ball. First, Kansas City, who had scored eight goals leading up to the match, recorded a shot on goal only twice in ten tries against Columbus. Some of those missed shots could be chalked up to the wet conditions and skip of the ball of the grass, but not all of them. This was the first time in which Kansas City didn't look in control in the attacking third. They were once again without Omar Bravo, who is nursing a sports hernia injury. Even still, they didn't manage to get Teal Bunbury involved much throughout the entire 90 minutes. Kei Kamara did most of the positive work in the offensive third, beating defenders off the dribble and using his speed and strength to get to the baseline for crosses. The only problem was there wasn't anyone to finish them, or even get them directed at the goal.
The shutout was the first for Kansas City this season and the loss was Sporting KC's second. The team dropped to eighth out of nine teams in the Eastern Conference. Only Chicago sports an inferior record. Looking at the stats shows one team was focused and ready to play. One team did its homework and locked down a hot offense. One team outworked and out-hustled the other. That team was Columbus. They fouled less and won more corner kicks, usually a sign of smarter play, better passing and better control.
Sporting Kansas City's performance wasn't without highlights. Goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen had some spectacular saves, even if one of the best was only made because he botched a clearance. Defender Roger Espinoza played brilliant one-on-one defense for the majority of the game. He stood up the Crew's attackers and anticipated their touches nicely.
One glaring moment in the game came when KC's Julio Cesar received his second yellow card of the game for what appeared to be a phantom handball. By that time though, the game's momentum was fully in Columbus' favor.
Sporting KC should keep its head up. It dominated the first half and didn't give up after going down a man and a goal in the second. The team showed good composure. Every team has games where things just don't fall into place. This was one of those games for Sporting Kansas City.
The team will have a few days to work on its finishing before heading to Gillette Stadium to take on the New England Revolution. Kansas City will reach the halfway point of its 10-game road trip against the Revs, who currently sit two places and two points ahead of KC in the conference.
There were certainly some questionable calls made during Sporting KC's Saturday game against the Columbus Crew. It seemed to consume a good portion of the TV commentators' conversation. There were fouls that shouldn't have been fouls. There were balls that may not have gone out of bounds that were called out of bounds. There were advantages that weren't played when they clearly should have been.
Then there was that red card.
The red card given to Kansas City was an example of poor referee positioning. The replay shows no intentional handling of the ball and no foul. It shows the Sporting player slipping and having the ball hit his head while he tried to regain his balance.
As easy as it can be to blame referees for the outcome of a game, there were still opportunities for Sporting KC to get back in it. Kansas City took a lot of shots, but they were rarely near the goal. If the players did manage to keep them on frame, there wasn't much power behind them.
The Columbus defense did play relatively well. Kansas City had chances, but few of them really looked threatening. Once the Crew scored their goal, the entire game changed and it was Columbus' usually stagnant offense that came to life. There were several well-timed through balls that seems to catch Sporting KC's defense on its heels.
The lone goal scored in KC's 1-0 loss was a hustle goal. The Sporting defender was a step slow getting into position and as a result got blown by before a sliding shot sent the ball by keeper Jimmy Nielsen. That was the lone defensive blemish in an otherwise solid performance in the back.
As usual, I will take another look at the game and be back tomorrow with a full recap and analysis.
Sporting KC had the week off from league action and so did the Stoppage Time blog. In the absence of local action, I relaxed and enjoyed some of Europe's finest. Lionel Messi never ceases to amaze me with the speed and control he exhibits game in and game out. His touches between defenders for Barcelona's lone goal Tuesday were fantastic. He doesn't dive despite being one of the most fouled players in the game. It's too bad the only way we'll get to see him against Real Madrid at 3 p.m. on Saturday is via ESPN3.com.
Ok, onto the week's action from Sporting.
Sporting Kansas City has had a week off to rest and practice leading into the resumption of the regular season. The team is still on the road this weekend as it heads to Columbus to face the Crew. Sporting KC is also coming off an overtime victory earned by stingy defense and timely scoring. The team's confidence should be high and they should be more than prepared for an offensively stagnant Crew squad that's scored just three goals in four contests.
Sporting KC fans received more good news Friday when the team announced it had signed French defender Aurelien Collin. The 6'2" Collin will add some size, strength and experience to the young — and at times porous — Kansas City back line. It's not yet clear how soon Collin will be able to join the team on the field, but it'll be interesting to see how quickly and fluidly he adjusts.
The news that dominated Sporting KC's off week was the status of striker and designated player Omar Bravo. The team's second leading scorer was sidelined with a sports hernia following Sporting's last game out against the Houston Dynamo in U.S. Open Cup play. During that game, Bravo was taken out after an unproductive first half. Staff said following the game that he had been replaced in the second half lineup to avoid injury.
That didn't work out so well.
Bravo will miss three to six weeks as he recovers from the injury, leaving a few nagging questions as to how well Kansas City's offense will fair without him. Sporting has been without Bravo before, posting a 3-3 draw on the road against Vancouver in the season's third match. Kei Kamara, Teal Bunbury and company will have to continue to find ways to produce in Bravo's absence.
Sporting KC is still in the midst of its grueling 10-game road trip to start the 2011 season. That kind of stretch is never easy, especially considering those games account for one third of the league season.
That said, Kansas City has managed to secure four points from its first three contests. Saturday night's game against Columbus will be important. Three points would vault Sporting into sole possession of second place in the Eastern Conference with seven points. That is likely to change as the weekend passes, with every other team at least one game ahead of Sporting KC in their season schedules.
Saturday's game at Crew Stadium will come down to who can score. Columbus has had real trouble finding the back of the net up to this point in the season. Don't expect that to change against a rejuvenated Sporting KC squad. Kansas City is one of the four most productive teams offensively so far in this young season. Kamara will be looking to continue accumulating points and Bunbury should have plenty of good looks at goal.
KC hasn't scored fewer than two goals in an MLS regular season game so far this year. If they can net two in this one, that's all they'll need.
Prediction: Kansas City rides their strong offense and rested defense to a 2-0 victory on the road.
Game: Sporting KC at Columbus Crew
Location: Columbus Crew Stadium
Time: 6:30 p.m.
TV: KSMO-TV channel 3 (regular def) or 203 (HD)