Before the game and through the opening minutes, smoke from the pregame pyrotechnics hung thick on the air Sunday at Livestrong Sporting Park. And where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire.
Sporting Kansas City forward Kei Kamara lit the match that turned Livestrong Sporting Park, which had a playoff atmosphere throughout, into a blazing wildfire during the fourth minute in a battle for first place in the Eastern Conference with the New York Red Bulls.
“It was a great effort on our part,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said. “From the opening whistle to the end, we gave everything we had to try and get the three points.”
But ultimately, the 18,491 Sporting KC fans in attendance and thousands more who watched live on ESPN2 couldn’t have been satisfied with a 1-1 draw, especially given that the Red Bulls finished with three shots and none on goal.
Sporting KC, 14-7-5, maintained its two-point lead over New York, 13-7-6, in the standings, but missed a golden opportunity to gain breathing room with eight games — including two at Red Bull Arena — remaining in the MLS regular season.
Midfielder Graham Zusi set in motion the game’s first goal by playing a chip over the top into space and directly at the Red Bulls’ goal. Forward Teal Bunbury, who sprained his left knee on the play and was subbed off in the 14th minute, won a footrace with New York defender and captain Markus Holgersson for the ball, popping it high and centering it for Kamara.
With New York goalkeeper Bill Gaudette caught in no-man’s land after an unsuccessful bid to beat Bunbury to the ball, Kamara skied over a pair of defenders — Holgersson and Connor Lade — to deliver an early lead.
“I hope it’s not too bad for Teal, because he’s been doing really well for us,” said Kamara, who leads Sporting KC with 10 goals this season.
In a bid for a 2-0 lead, defender Aurelien Collin, who narrowly missed the left post on a header off a Matt Besler throw-in during the opening 15 minutes, found the end of a Zusi corner kick in the 27th minute and hammered it on goal, but Gaudette had it covered.
Less than a minute later, the Red Bulls — despite not managing an official shot until the 58th minute — drew even.
Sebastien Le Toux, who moved to forward in Thierry Henry’s absence, delivered the free kick that resulted in New York’s equalizer — off Kamara’s head again. Kamara had inside position on the Red Bulls’ Tim Cahill, beating the former Everton midfielder to the ball, but flicking it past Jimmy Nielsen instead of away from goal.
“It was miscommunication with me and Julio (Cesar),” Kamara said.
“He called me off when I was about to head the ball, like Jimmy’s got it. I ducked a little bit and obviously the ball skimmed off my head. It should be Jimmy’s control to call me off not his.”
Chances proved hard to come by in the second half.
Kamara created perhaps the best chances, including a sizzling drive from 22 yards out in the 80th minute off a restart that left Gaudette motionless as it whistled a foot wide of the left post.
He also created a corner kick and sent the ensuing header over the bar a minute later.
Midfielder Paulo Nagamura had a rip of his own in the 56th minute, which took a deflection in the box and nearly wrong-footed Gaudette, who instead gathered it into his belly without incident.
The Red Bulls’ first shot and came two minutes later on a header that failed to test Nielsen by Cahill, who picked up a yellow card in first-half stoppage time. For much of the second half, New York appeared content to play for the tie after a chippy first half that featured 19 fouls, including 11 by the Red Bulls.
The best chance for Hans Backe’s squad came on a counterattack in stoppage time, but right back Chance Myers ran down Le Toux and midfielder Dax McCarty’s touch let him down in the Sporting KC penalty box with left back Seth Sinovic closing hard.