Sporting Kansas City picked a great time to put together its most comprehensively dominant performance in more than two months.
By TOD PALMER
The Kansas City Star
On Saturday, Sporting Park welcomed a record crowd of 21,126 — the 27th consecutive sellout in league play — to watch coach Peter Vermes’ crew rough up Toronto FC 3-0 and move into first place in the Eastern Conference.
“We needed that and, again, we set the bar now and we know what we’re able to,” said captain and goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen, who tied Tony Meola’s club record with his 49th career victory.
Third-year striker Soony Saad got the ball rolling with his first goal in nearly two years during the 21st minute as Sporting KC, 9-5-6, extended its unbeaten streak to five in a row.
Given a sliver of space atop the Reds’ penalty box, Saad gathered a pass from left back Seth Sinovic then delivered a grass-tickling laser inside the left post that goalkeeper Joe Bendik was helpless to stop.
“When he hits the ball, he can overpower a goalkeeper, even though he knows the ball’s going there, because he hits it so hard,” Vermes said. “It was a great finish.”
And Saad — who last scored during his league debut on his 19th birthday Aug. 17, 2011, — was only getting warmed up.
It took all of 29 minutes for Saad to poke home his third career goal off a 50th-minute rebound. Saad scored when Bendik palmed midfielder Graham Zusi’s rocket from the right edge of the box right to his feet for an easy putaway and a 2-0 lead.
“It’s definitely amazing,” Saad said. “It felt right, especially hearing the crowd erupt. We had a record-breaking crowd, and hats off to them.”
Toronto FC’s frustration boiled over in the 56th minute when midfielder Reggie Lambe was ejected for a reckless tackle from behind against Saad.
“The second goal was the killer,” said Reds coach Ryan Nelson, whose club fell to 2-9-7. “I always thought, even at 1-0, we would get our chances if we had 11 men. That second goal kind of hurt and then, obviously, the sending off was the nail in the coffin. It was probably damage limitation from then on.”
Saad set the third goal in motion in the 63rd minute with a through ball to forward Kei Kamara, who centered the ball for midfielder Benny Feilhaber with a one-time touch.
Feilhaber unselfishly sent the ball wide to striker Claudio Bieler, who happily tapped his team-leading ninth goal of the season into an empty net for the final dagger.
“The third goal that was one of the best combination-play goals that we’ve scored since I’ve been here,” Vermes said. “We’ve been working hard — for I don’t know, five years — to try and get there, so that’s a good thing.”
Feilhaber, who was denied a goal by a Bendik kick save in the 32nd minute, said he never thought about shooting.
“I was telling the guys, I’d much rather have an assist like that than any goal,” said Feilhaber, who made his second straight start. “I had my chances to score. I had the chance in the first half and the free kick. Didn’t go in, but I set up my buddy and that’s all that matters.”
Aurelien Collin thought he’d gotten in on the goal-scoring bonanza in the 76th minute when he finished off a pinball sequence by heading the ball into the right edge of the Reds’ net. But the goal was ruled offside and disallowed.
Nielsen, whose eight shutouts are tied for the league lead, had to make a double save in the 18th minute but saw little additional action as Sporting KC recorded its first shutout since May 12.
“We’re hitting our stride and this is only the beginning,” Saad said.
To reach Tod Palmer, call 816-234-4389 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/todpalmer.