Sporting Kansas City took nine first-half corner kicks but had nothing to show for it in a much-hyped battle with Real Salt Lake on Saturday at Livestrong Sporting Park.
By TOD PALMER
The Kansas City Star
But a couple of minor halftime tweaks made all the difference, producing the game’s only goal on Sporting KC’s first corner kick in the second half during a 1-0 win — the third 1-0 winin a row for the only unbeaten team in MLS.
“We actually scored one of them (in the first half),” manager Peter Vermes said, taking a jab at the phantom foul that erased a 44th-minute goal by C.J. Sapong. “Actually, the execution of the guys was good. We thought there was an advantage for us at the back post, so the delivery was very good. Other than the first one, we had good people in good positions, but we changed it up a little in the second half.”
Midfielder Graham Zusi took something off his first second-half service, which came in the 63rd minute, bringing the ball down in the middle of the Real Salt Lake six-yard box instead of at the far post.
His target players, forwards Kei Kamara and C.J. Sapong along with defender Aurelien Collin, also made a subtle adjustment, beginning their runs from farther out to gain extra space.
When Alvaro Saborio abruptly ceased marking Collin, it led to an easy putaway for the French central defender, who celebrated the goal by doing the salsa in front of 19,422 fans.
“Last year, towards the end of the year, we started to catch fire on the set pieces,” said Zusi, who leads MLS with six assists and three game-winning assists this season. “This year, it’s no different. We know we’re a dangerous team on them and exploit other teams.”
Real Salt Lake, 5-2-0, knew that Sporting KC, 6-0-0 was strong in the air and lethal on set pieces.
“That’s something that we really focused on, because we know Kansas City is very good in all dead-ball situations,” Real Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis said. “We talked about it a lot and trained it this week. We don’t typically give up goals on dead balls either. We’re pretty good at defending them. Apparently, there was one player who falls asleep and was not with his mark, so we gave a free header in the six.”
The only bad news on the night was the Sporting KC’s MLS-record streak without allowing a shot on goal ended after 335 minutes on a header by Nat Borchers.
“The header at the end? You know it was offsides, so interestingly enough they really didn’t have a shot on goal,” Vermes said.
The game’s first promising chance came at the seven-minute mark when Seth Sinovic played a ball over the top for C.J. Sapong, who split the Real Salt Lake centerbacks then was knocked to the ground by Jamison Olave, though no foul was given.
Sporting KC appeared to grab the lead in the 44th minute when Sapong rose up for a header over Olave, but the goal was waved off on a mystery foul against Sapong.
Zusi had bent a corner to the middle of the box, which Sapong got a head on, sending it out to Bobby Convey.
Adjusting his run, Sapong backtracked toward the right post, where he connected with Convey’s service, heading the ball over sprawling Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando.
The confetti cannons went off and the crowd roared only to have referee Kevin Stott race in and wave off the score.
“It’s disappointing on the first goal we scored, knowing full well there was no foul on the play,” Vermes said. “To think that you see something or you’re going to make something up in that environment and this level of game, it’s disappointing from a fan perspective.”
Rather than pout, Sporting KC kept the pressure up in the second half in pursuit of another go-ahead goal.
“It fired us up,” Zusi said. “We knew that goal should have been allowed, but that just gave the confidence to go forward and really push for that first one.”
The game, which featured the Eastern and Western conference points leaders and the only teams with five wins entering the weekend, was billed as a possible MLS Cup preview.
“I’m really happy tonight, because it wasn’t an easy game,” Collin said. “We knew it was a team we expected to play smart and try to make us lose our mind, but we were prepared and study very well how they were playing.”
To reach Tod Palmer, call 816-234-4389 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/todpalmer.