Sporting Kansas City looked every bit the part of Major League Soccer’s defending Eastern Conference champions in Saturday’s season opener against D.C. United.
Sporting dominated possession, created scoring opportunities and defended in its own end. Through 90 minutes on a brisk night at RFK Stadium, Sporting KC did everything it wanted to — except put the ball in the back of the net.
But with the threat of a scoreless draw looming, second-half sub C.J. Sapong rose above United’s back line to head home the game-winning goal off a corner kick in the 93rd minute and give Sporting KC a well-deserved 1-0 victory.
Featuring a nearly identical lineup to the one that clinched the conference title in its 2011 regular season final in the nation’s capital last October, Sporting KC controlled the pace in the first half and swarmed United’s defensive zone for much of the second. But all those efforts failed to produce a goal as United goalkeeper Bill Hamid smothered a series of low line-drive shots and used his athleticism to keep the game scoreless until the final minutes.
“We were breaking them down all game, we were connecting passes — it was just that final pass and that final shot,” Sapong said. “At the end of the day we had some objectives that we wanted to accomplish — getting a goal and getting a road win, and we did that.”
Despite dictating play early, Sporting KC, 1-0-0, never truly threatened until the 44th minute, when Hamid’s sprawling scissor-kick save kept Kei Kamara from opening the scoring with a well-struck header.
“That was definitely a great save from him, I don’t know how he did it,” Kamara said of Hamid, who made earned his first United States national team appearance cap last month against Venezuela. “He’s a big guy, but we had to keep putting shots on goal, and hope that eventually one would go in.”
That momentum carried into the second half where Sporting KC attacked from the outset, exposing United’s revamped back line and creating multiple shots on goal. Kamara continued to push forward down the right flank while Teal Bunbury bullied his way into the box repeatedly, and got his head on the end of a pair of set pieces. Sapong replaced Bunbury in the 75th minute, giving United’s winded back line yet another challenge.
“When you get around the goal as much as we did, you could use a little bit of your confidence,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said. “We talked about it at halftime: ‘Look, we’re finding good opportunities, we’ve got to keep just pressing those opportunities. We can’t get shy about them.’”
It was not until stoppage time that Sporting KC’s relentless pressure finally produced a goal. Sapong sprung through the defense just in time to head Graham Zusi’s corner kick across his body and into the open left corner of the net, setting off a celebration near the left corner flag.
The goal was doubly special for Sapong, who grew up in nearby Prince William County, Va., and had a large contingent of family and friends among the 16,314 in the stands.
“It’s a dream come true,” Sapong said. “To see all my family and friends in the stands cheering for me, to see people that are cheering for D.C. cheering for me — it’s just a fulfilling, amazing feeling.”
Aurelien Collin spent much of the night shadowing dangerous striker Dwayne De Rosario, limiting the reigning league Most Valuable Player’s touches in space. But the focus on De Rosario allowed Chris Pontius ample room to roam up top early, and he nearly made Sporting KC pay with a 20-yard strike late in the first half that rolled wide of the left post. That was the best look United, 0-1-0, would get all night, as they managed only one shot on target to Sporting KC’s eight.
Sporting KC, which opened 2011 with 10 consecutive road games and a 1-6-3 record as construction was completed on Livestrong Sporting Park, plays host to New England on Saturday.
“What’s better than starting off the season with a win?” Kamara said. “Getting this one and now getting to go back home and play in front of our fans, it’s definitely a great way to begin.”