Teal Bunbury booted Sporting Kansas City into the lead — but more importantly into the playoffs — Saturday against the New York Red Bulls at Livestrong Sporting Park.
His 57th-minute tally, an unstoppable one-time volley across the face of goal and inside the far post from 10 yards away, lit the fuse on a 2-0 win. It also kicked Sporting KC, which last qualified for the MLS playoffs in 2008, into a first-place tie with Philadelphia.
“Opening night here was an amazing night, but we walked away with a tie and we were disappointed about that,” said captain Davy Arnaud, who came on in the 55th minute. “Today, not only to reward ourselves for our hard work but to reward the fans and the ownership group, it was important to get to celebrate here in our beautiful stadium.”
The game-winning sequence started with a corner kick by Graham Zusi, who hammered the ball to the far side of New York's box where defender Matt Besler headed it back toward the center. Red Bulls defender Stephen Keel got a touch with his head, but failed to clear the ball.
Instead, it went to Sporting KC midfielder Julio Cesar, who tapped a header into Bunbury's wheelhouse.
With a quick, strong rip, Bunbury, who is now tied with Kei Kamara and Omar Bravo for the team lead with nine goals, beat New York goalkeeper Frank Rost and sent 19,921 fans into a frenzy. Bunbury had four shots in the first half, but sent Sporting KC's best scoring chances wide right of the Red Bulls net.
“I told him him at halftime, 'The chances are going to keep coming, so you've just got to stay focused and know that when it comes you're going to get one to bury,'” manager Peter Vermes said. “He did a good job of that.”
Sporting KC, 12-9-12, had been playing with a man advantage since the 28th minute when Red Bulls captain and French superstar Thierry Henry was sent to the showers early for a violent conduct. Herny kneed Sporting KC midfielder Roger Espinoza in the back as he sat on the ground near the center circle after winning a loose ball. He was shown an immediate red card by referee Kevin Stott.
“(Henry) intentionally kicked an opposing player who was on the ground and the ball was not in playing distance,” Stott said, explaining the decision to opt for an instant ejection. He later added, “In my opinion, the act was intentional.”
Rookie C.J. Sapong, who came on in the 73rd minute for Bravo, pushed the lead to two goals off another Zusi corner kick only 46 seconds after entering the game.
This time, the service came from left of goal, but again it was Besler on the other end setting up the goal – this time directly.
Besler, a Blue Valley West graduate, popped the ball forward to Sapong, who wrapped a rocket goal around Red Bulls defender Roy Miller at the right post.
“The second half was about not giving anything away to them, and we locked the game down very well,” Vermes said.
Sporting KC, which has lost only three times in the last 25 MLS matches, was every bit as dominant as the final score indicates, too. They outshot the Red Bulls 24-6, including an 8-2 advantage in on-target shots.
“From the opening whistle, I thought we were very good tactically,” Vermes said. “We established the first shot on goal very early and after that it was just a barrage of chances that were just wide or just over the top. But when you're creating that many chances, you feel very confident.”
The victory, which bumped Sporting KC to 48 points this season, forced a tie atop the Eastern Conference when Philadelphia could only manage a 1-1 draw at home against a Toronto FC team that has been eliminated from playoff contention for quite some time.
“I'm proud of Peter and the guys, because we put them in a terrible hole with 10 road games to start the season, but they responded in a way better than we could have never expected,” Sporting Club CEO Robb Heineman said. “Today is a really good start, but we don't have visions of making the playoffs. We have visions of winning championships.”SPORTING KC NOTEBOOK Dissecting the first-place tiebreaker
The Eastern Conference title could come down to a tiebreaker for the better playoff seed between Sporting Kansas City, 12-9-12, and Philadelphia, 11-7-15.
Both teams are tied atop the conference with 48 points with Houston, 11-9-13, lurking two points back and awaiting any slip.
Both teams also wrap up the season on the road with the Union traveling to face the New York Red Bulls, who will be without Thierry Henry after he was ejected from Saturday's 2-0 loss in Kansas City, on Thursday and Sporting KC playing at D.C. United two days later.
Philly and Sporting KC battled to a pair of draws this season and both teams also are dead even on goal differential, which is the next tiebreaker.
That means it likely would come down to goals scored, an area in which Sporting KC has an insurmountable 49-43 edge.Nielsen dubbed team MVP
Sporting KC announced its year-end awards Saturday, declaring goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen the 2011 MVP.
“So far, it's been a great season for us and I think there were many options for that title,” said Nielsen, a 34-year-old from Denmark better known to fans as “White Puma.” “But, of course, I'm proud of it. It's quite an honor from my teammates, the coaches and the media.”
Hometown star Matt Besler, a native of Overland Park, was selected as the Defensive Player of the Year to cap a season that also saw him voted to the MLS All-Star team.
“It's nice to get recognized,” Besler said. “I think I've had a very consistent season as one of the guys leading the team in the back.”
Kei Kamara was the MLS W.O.R.K.S. Humanitarian of the Year and Nate Opperman, a senior at Olathe South, was chosen as the Bob Gansler Award winner as Sporting KC's most outstanding junior player.Sapong makes case as top rookie
Forward C.J. Sapong notched his fifth goal of the season and, in doing so, tied for the MLS lead among rookie goal scorers.
Sapong, who has five goals and five assists, is tied with Houston rookie Will Bruin, who has only one assist with his five goals. The two are front-runners for rookie of the year honors. “That would mean so much to me,” Sapong said. “I'm not going to lie, I would like to win that.”
He hopes his goal Saturday in the 74th minute helped wrapped up the award.
“I hope so, if not there are serious problems and I'm going to have to talk to come people,” Sapong said.Welcome to the USA
Everybody at Livestrong Sporting Park wound up in court Saturday, but only temporarily.
The soccer facility was declared a courtroom before the game as the Honorable Robert D. Berger conducted a naturalization ceremony for 50 people from 28 countries on the field.
U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas was on hand as well and one of the new U.S. citizens from Peru sang the national anthem.Auvray makes an appearance
Stephane Auvray, who was traded to the Red Bulls on Aug. 12 for a second-round draft pick in 2013, came on in the 83rd minute for midfielder Rafael Marquez.