Playing in front of a “sellout crowd” at Red Bull Arena, Sporting Kansas City stayed atop the Eastern Conference standings with a 0-0 draw against the New York Red Bulls.
A half-hour later, Sporting KC moved closer to its second straight conference crown when New England stunned the Chicago Fire 1-0 in Foxboro, Mass., and D.C. United beat Columbus 3-2.
Sporting KC leads United by three points with one game remaining, meaning Sporting needs a win or a draw in the season finale against Philadelphia on Wednesday or a United loss to clinch home-field advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs. The path to get there Saturday was unusual for coach Peter Vermes’ squad.
New York, 15-9-9, controlled the game, dominating possession 64 to 36 percent and sending twice as many open-play crosses into the box. But Sporting KC, 17-7-9, had an answer every time, and goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen again proved impenetrable.
“It was a battle. It was a fight,” Vermes said. “We needed to come in here and get a result and get ourselves prepared for the playoffs. That right there is what the playoffs will be like, so, yeah, it was a good result.”
During a scrum in the box off a corner by New York’s Thierry Henry in the 21st minute, Nielsen wrestled the ball from Tim Cahill’s feet despite falling to the ground during the fracas.
Two minutes later, Nielsen, who picked up his 15th shutout of the season, slapped away a left-footed drive by Dax McCarty with his left paw.
The Red Bulls’ Kenny Cooper got to the rebound, but whiffed on a shot from a tight angle.
Cooper cracked a rocket from 20 yards away in the 41st minute, but Nielsen swatted it over the crossbar with his fully extended right hand.
Aurelien Collin helped Nielsen’s cause in the 47th minute.
Henry drilled a shot from dead center in Sporting KC’s penalty box, which Collin deflected with his, ahem, lower midsection.
Three minutes later, off a Red Bulls shot that was deflected high by Sporting’s Paulo Nagamura in the box, Cooper clattered awkwardly into Nielsen, who was tracking the ball to time his leap for a save.
It was yet another wasted opportunity for New York, which outshot Sporting KC 10-6.
Two minutes later off a turnover in the left channel, Cahill drew out Sporting KC’s defense and slotted a ball to Henry, whose first touch was too heavy and allowed Nielsen to close him down before Henry could get anything on a shot.
New York’s ensuing corner kick also proved fruitless.
During the 65th minute, Henry fooled Sporting KC’s defense with a right-footed shot fake then pulled the ball to his left foot for a blistering shot inside the near post, but Nielsen was again equal to Henry’s brilliance, denying the tally with a right-handed stab.
Off the rebound, the Red Bulls tried to re-center the ball back to Henry, but Sporting’s Matt Besler jabbed the ball away — and into Nielsen’s face — to keep the game scoreless.
“Jimmy has been stellar all season,” Vermes said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s goalkeeper of the year. He’s got to be, with the way he’s played game in and game out and always kept his cool.”
Lawrence Olum came on for Jacob Peterson for Sporting KC in the 78th minute, a signal that Sporting KC was more than content to play for the draw.
“It was a different game,” Vermes said. “I don’t think we came in to sit back and play for the draw, but give them some credit. They played better with movement and other pieces of their game. At the end, we did what we had to do to grab a point.”
The draw ended Sporting KC’s hopes for a Supporter’s Shield, earned by the team with the best overall record in the regular season. That was clinched by San Jose. But Sporting did extend a club record for points in a season (60) and extended its unbeaten streak to 11 games (6-0-5).