A deflating draw seemed inevitable.
Sporting Kansas City, which had lost four of five games entering a showdown against the Colorado Rapids on a muggy Saturday night at Sporting Park, had grabbed a first-half lead, but Edson Buddle’s 77th minute goal put a damper on the club’s 30th consecutive sellout in MLS play.
Desperate to avoid another distasteful result, Sporting KC knuckled up in the final 10 minutes and sent most in the crowd of 19,579 home happy when Graham Zusi delivered an 88th-minute game-winner in a 2-1 victory.
“I can’t stress how important that win is for us,” said Zusi, whose goal celebration included a flying jiu jitsu kick of the corner flag. “We talked going into this one that it was pretty much a must-win for us. We needed to get back on track and put ourselves in a good spot, which is exactly what we did. It helps us get our confidence back up, and now we’ll try to finish the season strong.”
Zusi’s fifth goal of the season snapped Colorado’s nine-match unbeaten streak and vaulted Sporting KC, 12-9-6, into a three-way tie atop the Eastern Conference with the Montreal Impact and New York Red Bulls.
Right back Chance Myers started the game-winning sequence by lofting a cross high into the box from the right flank toward the left post.
Forward C.J. Sapong, who had come on in the 79th minute, realized he had no chance to attack the ball and direct a header on frame, so he backpedaled and did the next best thing.
“I knew it would be hard for me to get an accurate header on goal, so my first inclination was to drop it off and I could hear him (Zusi) yelling,” Sapong said. “I didn’t really see him, but I just dropped it off behind me and he was there for the finish.”
Zusi collected the pass Sapong nodded his way and calmly buried a right-footed shot past Rapids goalkeeper Clint Irwin — ball game.
“It’s no secret that we’ve been struggling to get some results lately in the league,” Nielsen said. “The reaction from the guys when Colorado made the equalizer was fantastic.”
From the opening whistle, Sporting KC was dominant, controlling more than 70 percent of the possessions in the first 30 minutes.
Still, with Colorado, 10-8-9, packing numbers behind the ball, it had become clear that it would take something special to crack open the Rapids’ defense.
Midfielder Benny Feilhaber delivered in that fateful 33rd minute, tucking a wicked 30-yard knuckler high inside left post with the outside of his right foot.
Seconds earlier, forward Dom Dwyer, who made his first MLS start, had won a 50-50 ball with a sliding challenge. The ball took a deflection off Rapids midfielder Hendry Thomas and fell into Feilhaber’s path for the golazo.
“I’m not sure how they gave me an assist on that, but I will absolutely take it,” said Dwyer, who was credited with his first MLS assist on the play.
Feilhaber’s goal snapped a 213-minute scoreless streak, but it wasn’t enough by itself.
Seven minutes after entering the match in the 70th minute, Buddle unleashed a low roller from 25 yards out toward the right post, which centerback Matt Besler deflected into the other side of the goal.
Aside from the fluky goal, the Rapids’ best attacking moments came in the 45th minute, when Sporting KC survived a four-shot flurry.
Rookie Deshorn Brown uncorked a dipping shot early in the first half’s final minute, which Nielsen barely tipped over the bar.
On the ensuing Dillon Powers corner kick, Colorado got three more point-blank chances, including Thomas’ powerful header into the ground and off the crossbar. Thomas and Gabriel Torres also had rebound chances before centerback Aurelien Collin cleared the threat.