In their latest stint with the United States men’s national team, Matt Besler and Graham Zusi began to count the number of days they spent away from Sporting Kansas City, a total that would eventually reach 36.
The two designated players made their long-awaited return to Children’s Mercy Park on Sunday. And they responded with an even longer-awaited return to the scoring column.
Besler secured his first goal in five seasons, a stoppage-time sigh-of-relief to lift Sporting KC to a 3-2 victory against Columbus.
“It doesn’t matter if you score 50 goals or one,” Besler said before cracking a smile, “They all feel good when you score.”
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Few, however, have felt so redeeming. Besler, a four-time Major League Soccer All-Star and World Cup veteran, opened the match on the bench, the product of a managerial decision. He entered the game in the second half, but only after Lawrence Olum felt tightness in his legs.
Besler’s first goal since 2011 — a header to finish off a pass from Ike Opara — saved a frustrating afternoon in which the team he captains relinquished a late lead on its home field, despite playing nearly the entire second half with a one-man advantage.
Instead, he moved the club back above the playoff line in the Western Conference in front of a crowd of 19,322, the 80th consecutive sellout at Children’s Mercy Park.
“It’s hard to say must-win this early in the season, but I think we all felt that,” Besler said.
In a season marked by inconsistencies from its veteran core, it was Sporting KC’s longest-tenured players who surged to the forefront Sunday.
Besler made his impact moments before the final whistle.
Zusi’s came much earlier.
Zusi played with a spring in his step throughout the evening, and he supplied his first goal of the season in the 56th minute, eight minutes after the club was afforded a one-man advantage. It was a play he both started and finished. After collecting the ball just inside the center circle, Zusi made a 35-yard charge toward the goal, then unleashed a left-footed strike that blistered the back of the net.
He has scored twice with the U.S. men’s national team this year. He bagged his first goal with Sporting KC since Aug. 22, 2015.
“I was extremely excited to come back and play with these guys,” Zusi said. “We’re right there. A couple wins puts us right back in the thick of things.”
Even closer now.
Sporting KC faced a one-goal deficit to open the second half after Crew forward Ola Kamara scored in the 23rd minute, but it pounced early after the break. Forward Dom Dwyer was eliminated in the penalty area in the 48th minute, and referee Ted Unkel removed his red card from his back pocket and stuck it toward Columbus defender Tyson Wahl. Benny Feilhaber converted the resulting penalty kick to draw even.
That put Sporting KC on the scoreboard.
Besler added the final tally. In the last sequence, Besler and fellow center back Opara each migrated to penalty area for the final corner kick. A ball first reached Opara, who said he heard Dwyer call for the pass. Opara instead opted to sent the ball toward the back post, where Besler waited.
“I was just hoping someone was there,” Opara said. “It found the right guy.”
SPORTING KANSAS CITY 3
COLUMBUS: Steve Clark; Harrison Afful, Michael Parkhurst, Tyson Wahl, Corey Ashe; Wil Trapp(Dilly Duka, 73rd), Tony Tchani, Ethan Finlay, Hector Jimenez(Chad Barson, 50th), Justin Meram(Rodrigo Saravia, 78th); Ola Kamara.
KANSAS CITY: Tim Melia; Saad Abdul-Salaam, Lawrence Olum(Matt Besler, 54th), Ike Opara, Jimmy Medranda; Benny Feilhaber(Justin Mapp, 83rd), Soni Mustivar, Roger Espinoza; Jacob Peterson(Brad Davis, 78th), Dominic Dwyer, Graham Zusi.
Columbus: 1, Ola Kamara 6(Harrison Afful, Ethan Finlay) 22nd minute; 4, Ola Kamara 7(Toni Tchani), 75th minute.
Kansas City: 2, Benny Feilhaber 4(PK), 49th minute; 3, Graham Zusi 1(Roger Espinoza), 56th minute; 5, Matt Besler 1(Ike Opara, Jimmy Medranda), 91st minute.
Shots on goal
Columbus: Harrison Afful, 82nd minute.
Kansas City: Benny Feilhaber, 13th minute. Dominic Dwyer, 51st minute. Matt Besler, 66th minute. Jimmy Medranda, 84th minute.
Columbus: Tyson Wahl, 48th minute.
Kansas City: None.
Referee: Ted Unkel.
Assistant referee: Corey Parker.
Assistant referee: Jeremy Hanson.
4th official: Alex Chilowicz.
Announced attendance: 19,332.