Sporting Kansas City took another step toward a second straight Eastern Conference crown and broke the club’s all-time record for points in a season with a 2-0 win Friday night against the Chicago Fire at Livestrong Sporting Park.
The win – the first at home against the Fire in more than five years – also clinched a playoff berth for coach Peter Vermes’ club, which joins three Western Conference teams that already qualified for the MLS postseason.
“That (qualifying for the playoffs) absolutely was the goal,” Vermes said. “It’s another one we check off at the bottom of our list. We’re working our way up. The next one would be to win the division so that we have home-field advantage through the playoffs.”
During the last meeting with the Fire on June 29 at Livestrong, Sporting KC, 17-7-7, dominated possession, but got beat 1-0 on a second-half counterattack.
But midfielder Graham Zusi spoiled Chicago’s defend-first tactic with an early goal, forcing the Fire to abandon the bunker mentality and open things up.
The game-deciding goal came in the 11th minute when Kei Kamara accepted a pass near midfield and turned on Fire defender Gonzalo Segares, outrunning Segares down the right flank before skipping a ball through the penalty box.
Forward C.J. Sapong continued a run toward the penalty spot that sucked in the Chicago defense, allowing the ball to reach Zusi for a one-time effort into the right side of goal.
“Every time we had service in the box, we had at least three guys and their runs were defined,” Vermes said. “When you have the kind of allocation of space in the box, you’re going to find something. His (Zusi’s) movement to get to that ball was excellent, but to hit that ball off the bounce was big time.”
It was the fourth goal of the season for Zusi, who is tied for the MLS lead with 14 assists, and the career-best-tying sixth assist for Kamara, who leads Sporting KC with 11 goals this season and also had six assists in 2010.
Zusi added his fifth goal in the 96th minute for some insurance.
The Fire, 16-9-5, had scored at least two goals in eight straight MLS matches and hadn’t been shut out since a one-goal loss July 18 at the New York Red Bulls, but the league’s best defensive team got an early lead and put the clamps on hard.
“The first half especially, our defensive effort was very good – from the guys up top to the guys in the back,” Zusi said. “We really didn’t allow them to do anything offensively in the first half. The second half, they had to push the game a little bit and were able to create some chances, but nothing too spectacular.”
Goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen broke the club record for wins in regulation in a single season (17) and moved into a tie for the second-most shutouts in a season (14) in front of a record crowd of 21,010, the 14th consecutive sellout.
“For defenders, when forwards give us something to defend, it makes us want to work even harder,” said center back Lawrence Olum, who started in place of Aurelien Collin for the second straight game.
Sporting KC, which last beat the Fire at home in a 3-2 decision Aug. 22, 2007, stretched its unbeaten streak in MLS matches to nine games at 6-0-3.
“I didn’t know the history before (the game) that we hadn’t won against Chicago at home for a while, but that what we’re all about – changing history,” Kamara said. “It’s great, especially to clinch the playoffs. It’s a bit of relief and another accomplishment we wanted to have.”
The Fire’s frustration boiled over late as manager Frank Klopas drew an ejection from referee Chris Penso in the final minutes protested what he thought should have been a penalty kick.
Segares, who drew a yellow in the 72nd minute protesting a foul by slamming the ball, also saw red when he was cautioned for a tactical foul in the 94th minute.
After the victory, Sporting KC announced playoff tickets will go on sale Oct. 19, but season ticket members will have access to a special presale next week.