The road to the MLS Cup in the Eastern Conference goes through Livestrong Sporting Park.
Sporting Kansas City wrapped up its second straight Eastern Conference regular-season championship — a first in club history — on Wednesday with a 2-1 win against the Philadelphia Union at Livestrong Sporting Park.
The result also ensures Sporting KC, 18-7-9, will have home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs as well as for the MLS Cup against any team other than the San Jose Earthquakes.
Sporting KC, which hasn’t lost since July 28, extended its club record for points in a season (63) and its 12-game unbeaten streak (7-0-5), which is the best in MLS this season.
The conference title is the fifth in Sporting KC history, but clinching at home — last year’s title was assured on the last game of the regular season with a 1-0 win at D.C. United — added something to the celebration.
It looked as if Sporting KC would have to settle for winning the East via a draw after Matt Besler’s foul a foot inside the penalty box set in motion the game-tying sequence early in the second half.
Besler stepped in late on Danny Cruz in the 52nd minute.
Seeking his club and MLS record-tying 16th shutout of the season, goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen stonewalled Michael Farfan’s penalty try with a dive to his left, but Antoine Hoppenot pounced on the rebound and cracked the equalizer under Nielsen.
Philadelphia went for the jugular from there as both Jack McInerny and Keon Daniel clanged shots off the right post less than five minutes after Hoppenot’s tally.
But Sporting KC eventually reasserted control and eventually found the game-winner.
Second-half sub Oriol Rosell won a ball at midfield.
Forward Kei Kamara raced upfield with on an uncontested run before slotting a ball to fellow forward C.J. Sapong, who was unmarked after a looping run from the middle to the right edge of Philadelphia’s penalty box.
Notching his ninth goal of the season with a rocket inside the near post, Sapong put an exclamation point on the championship in the 82nd minute.
Sporting KC controlled the first half.
It’s best chance for an early lead came in the 19th minute when Sapong worked over Raymon Gaddis in the right channel and cut inside.
Without an angle to squeeze a shot past goalkeeper Zac MacMath, Sapong instead tried a centering chip, which was deflected away by Union defender Brian Carroll’s left elbow as he tried to tuck his arm behind him.
Sporting KC players and fans erupted, hoping to convince referee Ismail Elfath to award a penalty kick, but he wouldn’t bite.
During the 38th minute, MacMath denied a volley by Sapong at the near post off a blistering short cross from defensive midfielder Julio Cesar, but Philadelphia wouldn’t remain unscathed much longer.
Midfielder Jacob Peterson delivered Sporting KC a lead in the 40th minute off a crisp exchange involving Sapong and Kamara.
Sapong earned his second assist of the year when he played a ball out wide for Kamara, who set a new career high with seven assists when he immediately crossed a perfectly weighted ball back to the middle of Philadelphia’s box and inches from sliding defender Carlos Valdes’ outstretched foot.
Peterson hammered home his fourth goal of the season, which matches the career-best mark he set as a rookie in 2006 with Colorado.
Sporting KC’s threatening ways weren’t done either.
During the first minute of stoppage time in the opening half, center back Aurelien Collin nearly made it 2-0, but he couldn’t quite get the ball to his feet for a clean shot.
A minute later, Sapong worked over the Union defense along the end line and cut a pass back to Zusi, whose blistering one-timer was punched away by MacMath.
Given a second chance on the rebound, Zusi tried with his left foot on the second blast but again was denied by MacMath before the whistle blew to mercifully end the first half for Philadelphia.