Sunday, July 21, 2013

Sporting KC earns 2-1 win at Real Salt Lake on dramatic last-minute goal from Ike Opara; extends Eastern Conference lead

Sporting Kansas City earned a come-from-behind 2-1 victory at Real Salt Lake on Saturday night to extend the team's unbeaten streak to six games and increase their lead in the Eastern Conference race to four points.

Ike Opara's stoppage-time goal gave the visitors three points in a tightly-contested battle of first-place teams at Rio Tinto Stadium.

Opara's goal in the seventh minute of stoppage time tied Josh Wolff (9/22/10) for the latest goal in franchise history. The Wake Forest University product started in place of All-Star defender Matt Besler, who is with the U.S. Men's National Team ahead of Sunday's Gold Cup quarterfinal match against El Salvador.

Sparks flared in Utah early as Real Salt Lake defender Chris Wingert ran through Sporting Kansas City winger Kei Kamara only 20 seconds into the match and RSL striker Joao Plata undercut Sporting KC defender Chance Myers minutes later. The visitors nearly took advantage of the foul on Kamara, but Graham Zusi's free kick hit off the foot of Opara and was scooped up by Real Salt Lake's third-string goalkeeper Jeff Attinella.

The home side threatened the visitors in the 16th minute off a ball from Plata. The Ecuadoran striker played a long ball into Sporting KC's 18-yard box to Luis Gil, who rounded goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen. Gil played a ball across the box to Robbie Findley, who headed the ball to the top of the six-yard box but Nielsen recovered to grab the ball and end the scoring threat.

Nielsen was called into action two minutes later when Findley found Plata streaking to the back post. The Danish goalkeeper got a touch on the cross to slow down the attempt and Myers followed up the play to knock the ball out for a corner kick before Plata could connect.

Sporting KC winger Soony Saad, who recorded a brace in last week's win over Toronto FC, was in the thick of the action in the 49th minute when he turned defender Aaron Maund and sent a low, hard strike to the far corner. Attinella, who made four saves on the night in his first MLS start, dropped to his left and knocked the ball away for a corner kick. On the ensuing set piece, Zusi found Opara free at the back post, but Plata was in position to clear the header off the line.

Real Salt Lake broke through in the 56th minute when a Javier Morales free kick slipped through the hands of Nielsen and landed on the head of Findley. The veteran striker directed the ball into the empty net to give the home side the 1-0 lead.

The feisty affair turned in Sporting KC's favor in the 66th minute when Wingert was issued a second yellow card after pulling down Saad on the right flank. Sporting KC took advantage of the extra man, leveling the match on the ensuing free kick. Zusi's ball ping-ponged around the RSL penalty box before Claudio Bieler headed it to Saad. The third-year striker side-volleyed the ball past Attinella to level the match.

Sporting KC Manager Peter Vermes inserted Benny Feilhaber into the match in the 79th minute as his squad continued to search for the game-winner. Sporting KC nearly found it in the 89th minute but Feilhaber's strike from 15 yards sailed into the chest of Attinella.

Real Salt Lake almost stole the victory a minute later but Nielsen made a leaping save to deny a 20-yard strike from second-half sub Olmes Garcia.

The action continued into the final seconds of the match and lasted into the seventh minute of stoppage time where Sporting Kansas City found the eventual game-winner.

Opara out-leaped his defender and headed home a Zusi corner kick for his fifth career goal and second of the season. Zusi upped his assist total to six on the year, four of which have come on game-winning goals to move him into a tie for the League-lead in that category.

With the win, Sporting Kansas City improved their road record to 5-2-3, best in MLS, and improved their road goal differential to +3, best in the Eastern Conference.

Sporting KC will play their final match before the MLS All-Star Game next Saturday against the Montreal Impact at Stade Saputo.

Sporting KC defender Aurelien Collin picked up a yellow card Saturday night and will miss the Montreal match due to yellow card accumulation.