From the outset, C.J. Sapong’s scoring drought seemed destined to end.
Sapong, a second-year forward for Sporting Kansas City, was a monster in the first half and already had a career-high eight shots when second-half stoppage time arrived — and a potentially crippling loss to the Houston Dynamo seemed inevitable Friday at Livestrong Sporting Park.
Slumping Houston, which was 1-2-2 in its last five league games, grabbed the lead on the strength of Brad Davis’ 58th-minute goal.
But Sapong’s 93rd-minute header salvaged a 1-1 draw for Sporting KC, 15-7-6, which maintained its grip on first place in the Eastern Conference.
“Maybe it’s because I brought the Mohawk back,” said Sapong, who finished with nine shots and four on goal. “Really, I just woke up today and I was feeling extra hungry. We have a couple games left, and I want to be peaking right as we get into the playoffs.”
Manager Peter Vermes and his crew were relieved to draw, but the locker room was hardly jubilant after another dominant performance failed to yield a victory (and the full three points) for Sporting KC, which set a club record with 28 shots and controlled 58.9 percent of the possession.
Contrary to Dynamo assistant coach Tim Hanley’s assertion that Sporting KC probably felt victorious after snatching a tie from the jaws of defeat, Sporting KC again lamented the opposing team’s bunker-in mentality, which blunted the effects of all those shots.
“Everybody feels like we should have scored one or two more of those,” said forward Jacob Peterson, who returned from a separated shoulder that sidelined him the last six weeks.
Still, Sapong’s late goal at least gave Sporting KC one point when it looked as if a loss were certain.
“If they left the stadium here with three points, I’m afraid they’d all be arrested for robbery with a lot of witnesses,” goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen said. “We were lucky to score at the time we scored, but saying it feels like a victory for us, I absolutely disagree with that.”
Sapong snapped a three-month scoring drought, which spanned 12 games, with the goal and showed off his trademark celebration “always eatin’, always hungry” celebration that had been shelved since a 2-0 win June 16 against Toronto FC.
From that standpoint, it felt good for Sapong to send the 19,877 fans (a 13th straight sellout) home smiling.
“That’s a big one for him,” said midfielder Graham Zusi, who delivered his MLS-leading 13th assist on Sapong’s goal with a floating left-footed cross to the back post. “He was a good target for us up top all night. He was very unlucky not to be on the score sheet in the first half. Tally (Hall, Houston’s goalkeeper) came up with a huge save on his first-half header, but he came up big for us at the end.”
It took all of 16 seconds for an especially aggressive Sapong to make an impact.
He got free in the box immediately after kickoff but mistimed a swinging right-footed volley on a ball looped over his head.
But Sporting KC, which outshot Houston 10-2 and owned better than 60 percent of the possession before halftime, was relentless early.
During the fifth minute, forward Kei Kamara beat Hall to a free ball just inside the penalty area on the right side.
After drawing Hall closer, Kamara played a ball back to the top of the box to Zusi, who tried to chip into a net without the goalkeeper, but defender Bobby Boswell kicked the ball clear at the goal line.
Fifteen minutes later, Kamara climbed the ladder for a high, lofted cross from defender Aurelien Collin, winning a 50-50 ball and sending Dynamo defender Kofi Sarkodie sprawling.
But Sapong’s subsequent shot was deflected wide of goal for a corner kick.
Sapong tried a side-saddle bicycle kick on Zusi’s ensuing corner kick, one of five in the first half for Sporting KC, but couldn’t get on top of the shot, which sailed well into the Cauldron.
During the 33rd minute, off a cross from center back Matt Besler, Sapong whistled a header that Hall saved in spectacular fashion with a dive to his right.
Conversely, aside from an early free kick by Davis, Houston’s attack produced nothing threatening until the 42nd minute when Will Bruin got in free on Nielsen on a counter.
But Nielsen gobbled up Bruin’s blast with a dive to his left, preserving the 0-0 score going into halftime.