The feeling of dread grew in C.J. Sapong’s stomach as he watched the man in the bright orange jersey race down the field with nothing but green grass — and one man — ahead of him. And as he watched this scene unfold, he hoped — no, prayed — that goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen would rescue Sporting Kansas City just one more time on Sunday. If he could, it would keep Sporting’s Cinderella season alive for at least another five minutes.
But he couldn’t. And while Carlo Costly’s 87th minute goal wasn’t a game-winner or anything, it might as well have been. Because this was the exact moment when Sporting’s players and fans and everyone else who believed this team had the magic to win it all stopped believing, the moment when the final score — a 2-0 loss to Houston in the Eastern Conference final — became reality.
“It was just real deflating,” Sapong said.
For that, Houston deserves credit. In front of a hostile, standing-room only crowd of 20,839, the Dynamo successfully did what a brutal road schedule and a 1-6-3 start to the season couldn’t do — put Sporting down for good.
“Even being out there down 1-0, you feel like the goal or the chance is coming,” said midfielder Davy Arnaud. “But the second one obviously kind of kills the game.”
This didn’t happen by chance, either. The brutal truth is, a youthful Sporting team entered this game with plenty of advantages — like the fact it went unbeaten against the Dynamo this season, and the fact it hadn’t lost a home game by more than a goal all year — but Houston entered with the only advantage that ended up making a difference in the end: experience.
“We did everything to get ourselves in this position,” said Sporting coach Peter Vermes. “But maybe (we’re) just a little bit too young still with the group that we have.”
Outside of midfielder Júlio César and goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen, all of Sporting’s starters were 27 years old or younger. Compare that to Houston’s experienced starting lineup, plus a two-time MLS Cup champion coach in Dominic Kinnear, and well, you get what happens on Sunday.
And that is, a game in which the road team takes the home team — and it’s insanely charged up crowd — out of the game early by packing the box, limiting scoring chances and getting the home team completely out of its rhythm.
“We were just going, going, going (in the first half),” Vermes said. “You have to have a rhythmI thought we got caught up because of the fans, the stadium, at home, all of that. The second half, we got better but once they scored then the game really changed.”
Indeed. And it came in the 53rd minute, when midfielder Adam Moffat he sent in a corner kick that found Jermaine Taylor, whose shot was saved by Nielsen before Andrew Hainault rushed in to tap in the rebound.
From, there Sporting did get a few decent scoring opportunities — including a few where players that appeared to be taken down in the box — but the need to push numbers forward ultimately led to Costly’s goal, which sent his team into the MLS Cup finals.
And while this was the moment that everyone realized Sporting’s season was over, turns out it was another moment, one that came a few minutes later, when another reality hit home, one that infinitely more real — and more disappointing.
When the game ended, Sporting’s players — some of whom had already retreated to the locker room — were forced to come back out and watch MLS commissioner Don Garber hand Houston the conference trophy on their home field. The stage all was set, and the celebration they’d always dreamed of was going on before their very eyesonly, they weren’t really a part of it.
And it was then they realized: for all of the talk after the game about how it has been a great season, how the new stadium has been a success, how they have nothing to be ashamed of the truth is, none of that made them feel better.
Sporting may have risen from the dead this season, but it didn’t finish the job. And that was a reality that hurt so much that even the rookies like Sapong — who was one of the last players to get dressed and leave the locker room — felt it.
“You just (remember) how horrible it feels,” Sapong said somberly after the game. “You don’t want to feel it again. That in itself is enough motivation to get back here and win it.”SPORTING KANSAS CITY NOTEBOOK
After missing both games of the Eastern Conference semifinals, Sporting forward Omar Bravo made his first appearance of the playoffs when he came on in the 85th minute for Seth Sinovic.
When asked why Bravo, who has been battling a tight groin for the past week, didn’t enter the game earlier — Sporting fell behind in the 53rd minute — Sporting coach Vermes said he simply wasn’t sure how the veteran would do in the situation, even though Bravo said before the game he felt 100 percent.
“You know Omar at the end of the day, he is a competitor like any other player,” Vermes said. “Guys always tell you they’re 100 percent, but when you can’t play the last two games in a short spell, its not the easiest of decisions to throw a guy on and your not sure how, he’s going to go.
“So, could I have? Sure,” Vermes concluded. “But I think in the end the guys that were out there did a good job. Today, Houston was a better team.”
Sporting Kansas City’s loss provided another reminder of how a small, seemingly insignificant act can sometimes go a long way in deciding a game.
Playing in front of a crowd eager for a reason to explode, Houston placed pre-game emphasis on scoring the first goal. With it, the Dynamo could dictate the game and take away some of the juice inside of Sporting Livestrong Park.
Yet Houston’s first goal — the goal that players from both sides changed the game — almost didn’t happen. Faced with a free kick near his own box, Houston keeper Tally Hall initially looked to play a short pass to his left. Then, he almost pulled the trigger and played it short to a defender to his right.
Finally, Hall booted a ball deep down the field, which set up a free kick that led to the cross that led to Houston’s first goal eight minutes into the second half.
“I looked to play it short but those big guys up front have been huge for us all year,” Hall said, “and I wanted to give them a chance to make a play.”
Here’s something you didn’t expect to hear: Houston coach Dominic Kinnear said that in a backwards way, the first-half injury to star midfielder Brad Davis — who left the game with a quad problem — actually helped his team.
“He’s a big part of what we do on set pieces and in the run of play he’s an excellent player,” Kinnear said of Davis. “I think the move actually worked out pretty good because Kei Kamara was having a good first half. I thought putting Jermaine (Taylor) over there would quiet that down, and I thought he did good defensively.”