Within a few minutes after Sporting Kansas City’s 1-0 victory over the Crew on Saturday in Columbus, Ohio — a win midfielder Graham Zusi called a gutty performance — the club shifted its focus elsewhere. Only for a moment.
Having secured their three points Saturday, Sporting KC players and coaches were eager to figure out if Eastern Conference-leading New York had done the same.
It hadn’t. The Red Bulls were only able to earn a late draw against New England.
And that could make for an awfully interesting final three weeks of the Major League Soccer season.
Sporting KC stands two points back of New York for the No. 1 seed in the East, but Sporting has played one fewer game.
Advantage? You decide.
“It’s great for us. It puts us right back into the race for winning the East and making a run at the Supporters’ Shield as well,” Zusi said by phone. “…How we finish is now in our hands. We don’t have to worry about everyone else.”
That’s thanks to another road win, the league-best seventh of the season. Sporting KC ended Columbus’ three-match winning streak and crippled its late-season playoff push.
Sporting KC’s push, meanwhile, is reaching full swing.
It hopped on the scoreboard in the 17th minute Saturday when Zusi lobbed a ball toward the back post, laying up a perfect pass for Ike Opara, who snuck behind the Columbus defense and headed the ball into an open goal.
Zusi notched his team-best eighth assist of the season.
“We noticed early on that the back post was pretty open. They seemed to crowd the middle and the near post,” Zusi said. “…Ike made a great curling run to the far post. I just put it up there and let him do the rest.”
The same combination nearly gave Sporting KC an insurance goal in the second half.
Working off a set piece near the corner spot, Zusi lofted a ball into the box, and Opara out-leaped the Columbus defense for another header that reached the back of the net.
The referee, however, whistled Opara for a foul, erasing the score.
“You have to be crazy to call that a foul. That’s ridiculous,” Sporting KC manager Vermes said by phone. “…Here is a great goal-scoring opportunity, he puts it in the back of the net and they take it away.”
It certainly would’ve made the final moments much less nerve-wracking.
Columbus played a generous portion of the match in the Sporting KC end, but it failed to turn those into quality chances against keeper Jimmy Nielsen, who recorded his 11th shutout of the season.
The Crew saw arguably its best two chances at the end of the game. Again, though, neither were placed on goal.
Federico Higuain issued a set piece in the 86th minute just wide of goal, and Ryan Finley had a chance in front of Nielsen negated when Sporting KC defender Matt Besler nicked the ball just over the post.
Besler returned to the club’s lineup from a three-game absence, though it was a painful return.
In the 58th minute, he and Chad Barson knocked heads, immediately opening a bloody gash on the right side of Besler’s forehead. After covering the wound on the sideline, Besler returned to the game.