For the first 77 minutes of Sporting Kansas City’s MLS knockout-round playoff match against the New York Red Bulls, captain and center back Matt Besler could not have asked for more from his weary teammates.
Sporting KC, the defending MLS Cup champion held a one-goal lead and was doing a pretty good job of holding off the host Red Bulls. Then the Red Bulls found the right stuff — or rather the Bradley Wright-Phillips stuff.
Wright-Phillips reminded both teams and 15,518 spectators at Red Bull Arena and a national television audience why he led the league in goal-scoring with 27 goals, striking twice in the final 13 minutes in handing Sporting a 2-1 loss Thursday. He connected on the game-winner in the 90th minute that eliminated Sporting from the playoffs.
With the win, the Red Bulls advance to the Eastern Conference semifinals. They will play host to D.C. United in the first leg Sunday.
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“For 80 minutes we executed our game plan very well,” Besler said. “We ran out of steam in the last 10 minutes. You have to give credit to New York. They were able to capitalize on it and scored two goals.”
It has been a difficult last eight days for Sporting. Last Thursday Sporting was eliminated from the CONCACAF Champions League, losing at Saprissa (Costa Rica), 2-0. On Sunday, Sporting lost at home by the same score to the Red Bulls in the regular-season finale, a 2-0 result that determined playoff positioning, giving New York home-field advantage for Thursday’s knockout game.
“It’s disappointing to get knocked out like this,” Besler said. “We have high expectations as a team. So any time we don’t win championships, we’re disappointed.”
Besler got no argument from head coach Peter Vermes.
“Obviously it’s tough,” he said. “I’m disappointed for the guys. I thought (the Red Bulls) did really well. ... Credit to them.
“We countered really well a few times. I thought game plan, execution, and determination, work ethic all that stuff was there. Just a couple of chances didn’t go our way.”
But they did for New York. Second-half substitute Ambroise Oyongo looped a very high right-wing cross that an open Wright-Phillips headed one bounce into the lower left corner past Sporting goalkeeper Eric Kronberg for what turned out to be the game-winner.
Vermes said the game-winner was “a miskick by the guy. It wound up going to the same guy who has been scoring a lot of their goals. Right place at the right time.”
Added Besler: “A lot of credit has to be given to New York. They were able to make plays and get the goals. You can obviously say we were a bit fatigued, but again, we are not looking at that as an excuse.”
Sporting scored against the run of play in the 53rd minute.
Benny Feilhaber, playing on an injured ankle, stripped New York’s Eric Alexander of the ball at midfield and began a two-on-four break with Dom Dwyer toward the New York goal. Despite the disadvantage, Feilhaber dished the ball to his right to Dwyer, who slotted the ball past goalkeeper Luis Robles into the lower left corner for a 1-0 lead.
“He’s still hurting, but I think he took one for the team a little bit,” Vermes said of his captain, Feilhaber.
After the goal, Besler said he told his teammates: “ ‘Don’t stop, don’t stop right now.’ If we could get another, I felt very comfortable.”
But it was the Red Bulls who scored, equalizing in the 77th minute. Second-half sub Peguy Luyindula fed Thierry Henry on the left flank, Henry raced to the end line before sending the ball back to Wright-Phillips, who drilled home a shot into the lower right corner for a 1-1 tie.
“It’s a shame we gave up the first one when we did,” Vermes said. “I thought we were in a good position at that point. I was feeling pretty good.”