Sporting Kansas City’s grip on first place stretched nearly four months, its stay there marked by an offense that had sprung to life and a defense that had recovered from an atypical start.
But the stranglehold atop the West is on hiatus. And if Wednesday is any indication, it could be a long climb back.
Sporting KC lost consecutive matches for the first time this season, falling 4-2 late Wednesday to Real Salt Lake in Sandy, Utah.
Daniel Salloi bagged the initial goal, but the wheels disconnected from Sporting KC in remarkable fashion afterward. The club continued its trend of troublesome opening halves, and it finished with just nine men on the field after the ejections of Salloi and Roger Espinoza.
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“I wish I could tell you what it was,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes responded to a question about the deficient starts. “I don’t have the answer. I don’t. I’m not trying to be evasive. I don’t have the answer for why. I think it’s a question the players need to be asked.”
After conceding four goals for the first time this season, goalkeeper Tim Melia was asked just that in a postgame TV interview. He responded, “It’s embarrassing. We really need to kind of just look within, look at us as individuals, because we’re not playing like a team. We’re making mistakes all over the field, from back to front. We need to really take a look at ourselves after this game and figure this out.”
Its consequences will show in the standings. For the first time since March 17, Sporting KC concluded a match out of first place. That spot now belongs to FC Dallas, which flipped a late one-goal deficit Wednesday into a victory against Atlanta.
Minutes later, Sporting KC kicked off in Utah, and the Salloi goal provided an optimistic start. The positives were few afterward.
Real Salt Lake’s Jefferson Savarino, Corey Baird and Sebastian Saucedo bunched together three goals in the final 20 minutes of the first half. While they produced quality finishes, each was preceded by a colossal series of miscues — a failure to clear, a poor touch in the back end and a turnover in the midfield.
Sporting KC has been outscored 5-1 in the first half of its past three matches.
“In those three sequences, we were so easy to play through,” Vermes said. “I can’t even (find) the right word for it for you. It was too easy. On all three goals, it was just too easy. They were all just terrible, terrible decisions and mistakes on our part. Terrible. Just terrible.”
Ike Opara pulled one back in the second half, and Melia saved Albert Rusnak’s penalty kick chip to keep the advantage to one goal, at least temporarily.
But those were brief interruptions from a cloudy performance marred by errors, an outing that came four days after Vermes criticized his team’s lack of purpose in possession in a shutout loss in Montreal.
Sporting KC has allowed eight goals over its past three MLS goals after conceding just once in the previous four.
The journey back to first place grew increasingly difficult in the final moments of Wednesday’s match. Salloi received a red card for an elbow in the 90th minute, and Espinoza was sent to the tunnel four minutes later for a second yellow card. They will be suspended Saturday, when the club plays host to Toronto FC, the defending MLS Cup champion.