Thunderstorms in New York delayed Sporting Kansas City from leaving KCI Airport for eight hours Tuesday afternoon.
Split among three different flights, manager Peter Vermes’ club finally touched down in the city that never sleeps around 1 a.m. Eastern time and reached the hotel roughly two hours later.
The trip was well worth the wait, though, as Sporting KC remained alone in first place in the Eastern Conference and crept closer to the San Jose Earthquakes in the race for the MLS Supporter’s Shield with a 2-0 victory.
Sporting KC, 16-7-6, stung the Red Bulls, 14-8-7, for an early game-winner courtesy of C.J. Sapong, a second-year forward who snapped a three-month goal drought with a stoppage-time tally Friday against the Houston Dynamo.
Sapong padded his career-high goal total, adding his seventh of the season in the 12th minute after midfielder Graham Zusi drew a foul a few yards outside the Red Bulls’ 18-yard box.
Zusi drilled the ensuing free kick off the crossbar, but the rebound went to defender Matt Besler, whose short volley found an unmarked Sapong six yards from goal.
After settling the ball with a right knee, Sapong wheeled around to blast a low shot through a defender’s legs and past goalkeeper Bill Gaudette for the game-winner.
“We pushed the game from the opening whistle and there’s no doubt we were the better team and deserved the win,” Vermes said. “This was a massive result for us — undefeated team at home, trying to creep up on us in the Eastern Conference. It’s a tremendous win for this team.”
Seven minutes after Sapong broke the ice, Zusi, who nearly beat Gaudette in the 87th minute for an insurance goal, recorded his MLS-best 14th assist off a corner kick, connecting with forward Kei Kamara at the near post for an easy put away.
Kamara slipped around a seemingly uninterested Wilman Conde and pushed Sporting KC’s lead to 2-0 against the shell-shocked Red Bulls, who had been 10-0-3 at home before Wednesday’s loss.
“It was a great ball in by Zeus and the timing of (Kamara’s) run was perfect,” Vermes said. “He made a terrific run to the near post and it didn’t matter where the defender was, because he wasn’t beating Kei in the air on that one.”
New York threatened to keep things interesting in the 22nd minute when Rafa Marquez picked off a pass from Jimmy Nielsen intended for Julio Cesar, which resulted in a one-on-one chance for Thierry Henry.
But Henry uncharacteristically whiffed, sending the ball into the side net, as Nielsen closed him down.
Other than that, Nielsen — who earned his MLS-leading and career-best 12th shutout, while lowering his goals-against average to 0.86 – wasn’t seriously tested until the final 12 minutes.
He went to the ground to corral a shot from second-half substitute Lloyd Sam ticketed for lower left corner — one of four official saves – and also swallowed up a Sebastien Le Toux shot that took a deflection in the Sporting KC box with a one-handed stab.
“The key to our success today was the discipline,” Nielsen said. “We were always in the right positions, and everybody worked very hard for each other.”
Sporting KC, whose 16 wins match the club-record for the post-shootout era originally set in 2000, improved a league-best 8-4-2 on the road.
The only lowlight came in the 37th minute when midfielder Roger Espinoza picked up his fifth yellow card this season. He will miss Saturday’s match at the Montreal Impact due to accumulation of cautions.