Thursday, September 20, 2012

Sporting KC extends lead in Eastern Conference race

Sporting Kansas City earned a decisive 2-0 road victory at the New York Red Bulls on Wednesday to extend the team’s lead atop the Eastern Conference to four points with five games remaining.

Now unbeaten in seven straight, Sporting Kansas City earned their first victory at Red Bull Arena in club history and snapped the Red Bulls home-unbeaten streak at 16 games.

Both goals were scored in the opening 20 minutes of the match, first by C.J. Sapong in the 12th minute followed by Kei Kamara’s blazing header seven minutes later.

Jimmy Nielsen claimed his 12th shutout of the 2012 season, the most in the League, and Sporting Kansas City held New York scoreless at home for the first time this year.

With the win, Sporting Kansas City has earned 26 points on the road this season, an all-time club record, and has 16 victories on the season to tie the team’s 2000 campaign for the most wins in regulation in club history.

Eager to take the lead early, Sporting Kansas City put the pressure on the Red Bulls right out of the gate. In the fifth minute, Chance Myers made a slick pass to Kamara at the top of the box. The Sierra Leone international turned and took a driving shot that was just wide of the right post.

Just seven minutes later, Sporting Kansas City took the lead when Graham Zusi’s free kick banged off the crossbar and was sent back toward goal by Matt Besler.

His pass was settled by Sapong, who turned and shot low past Bill Gaudette for his seventh goal of the season.

The goal was the 11th allowed by New York in the opening 15 minutes of a match, the mostearly goals conceded in MLS this season, and gave Sporting Kansas City a wave of momentum which would be seized upon in seven minutes time.

In the 19th minute, Zusi’s corner kick was received by a perfectly-timed leap from Kamara at the near post and headed in to double the visitors’ advantage.

The goal marked Zusi’s 14th assist of the season, most among all MLS players, and Kamara set a new single-season career high with his team-leading 11th goal of the year.

Two minutes later, the stunned home side was less than complacent and had two rapid-fire shots of their own courtesy of the team’s three Designated Players.

Wilman Conde charged down the left flank and crossed to Tim Cahill, making a run down the center, but the Australian overshot his header.

Moments afterward, Rafa Marquez snatched the ball from Julio Cesar, ran at Sporting KC’s defense and slotted the ball to former French international Thierry Henry.

His lunging, left-footed shot soared over the crossbar with Nielsen coming off his line to apply pressure.

Both sides were relatively quiet for the ensuing 20 minutes.  Marquez took a hopeful attempt at the top of the box in the 43rd minute only to be denied by goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen.

A minute later, Cahill received a cross from Connor Lade and made a solid header that went wide once again, sending Sporting Kansas City into halftime in prime position.

The Red Bulls inserted Kenny Cooper, the League’s second-leading scorer, to start the second half and he immediately made an impact, taking a shot from distance that was swept up by Nielsen in the 52nd minute.

Cooper continued to make his presence felt with a quick run toward goal before passing to Henry continuing his run across the box.  Henry chipped the ball to Cooper, but his header was just wide.

Still looking to get back in the game with only 25 minutes left in the match, Conde made came forward from his spot on the backline and served in a well-timed cross for Henry.

The former Arsenal star attempted to tip the ball in with his head but it went over the crossbar.

The Red Bulls again challenged Nielsen in the 77th minute with a close-range shot from Cooper and a follow-up effort from Lloyd Sam that saw Nielsen make his most hard-fought save of the evening.

On the counterattack, Zusi danced through New York’s backline and laid the ball off for Roger Espinoza on the right side.

The Honduran’s cross found the awaiting head of Kamara but Gaudette was there to make a noble save.

Once again in the 80th minute, Nielsen was forced to make a sliding save when a pass from Le Toux took a deflection and required an alert stop from the MLS All-Star.

Sporting Kansas City looked to bag a third goal in the 87th minute when Kamara held up the ball in the box and passed the Zusi.

The U.S. Men’s National Team midfielder took a low, driving shot that Gaudette did well to deny.

New York continued to fight back in the dying stages of the match, most notably in the fourth minute of stoppage time when a series of close-range opportunities from Henry, Cooper and Lade were snuffed out by Sporting Kansas City’s backline.

The victory earns Sporting Kansas City the upper-hand in the all-time series, which nowstands at 18-17-10 in Sporting KC’s favor, and sets the stage for two team’s third and final meeting on October 20th at Red Bull Arena.

Following Wednesday’s win, Sporting Kansas City will remain on the road with a short turnaround to face the Montreal Impact at 12 p.m. CT on Saturday at Stade Saputo.

The match will be broadcast live on KCTV5 and La Gran D 1340 AM.