The scoreboard must have lied.
Anyone watching Saturday knew there’s no possible way to explain Sporting Kansas City’s 3-1 win over the Philadelphia Union in the MLS season opener on the banks of the Delaware in suburban Philadelphia. Even coach Peter Vermes and his players knew it had to be faulty arithmetic, because for the first 35 minutes the visitors were getting so thoroughly whipped at both ends of the field they were fortunate to be down even a goal.
Simply getting to the locker room tied was a feat all itself, setting the tone for a second half where they gradually took control, then pulled away.
But if not for the heroics of goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen, who did surrender one early Sebastien Le Toux goal, but bailed his club after that until the rest came out of their funk, it wouldn’t have mattered. Once Graham Zusi hammered home the equalizer in the 41st minute — converting a fat rebound created by newcomer Benny Feilhaber’s point-blank shot — the two-time reigning Eastern Conference regular-season champs, were able to carry the momentum to the locker room, then emerge a different team in the second half.
“I think the first 35 minutes were a little unacceptable from our side,” said Nielsen, who had a busy night. “We didn’t play like men.
“We were all over the place. And they did a great job putting pressure on us. But in the second half we adjusted a bit and didn’t allow them to counterattack.”
Thanks to goals from 20-year-old Spanish import Oriol Rosell in the 66th minute, then Claudio Bieler’s insurance tally 16 minutes later — with Zusi assisting on both — Sporting KC won its opener for the fourth straight season.
While it wasn’t a work of art, Vermes will take it.
“Look it’s their home opener, so you expect them to come out and drive the game and put us under pressure,” said Vermes, whose club next heads to Toronto this Saturday, before coming home to play Chicago March 16. “To be fair they did a pretty good job of it.
“It was big for us to get that (tying) goal, so we didn’t have be chasing the game the second half. What I liked is that we never panicked. We stuck with the game plan and just made a couple of adjustments.”
It didn’t hurt that the Union, disheartened to let Sporting KC draw even by intermission after completely dominating the action, couldn’t sustain the pressure. Ultimately it cost them when C.J. Sapong — fresh off the bench — drew a foul that resulted in a free kick. Zusi’s ball was delivered perfectly to Rosell’s head, putting the visitors ahead to stay.
And Nielsen made sure they remained in front, robbing Philly’s Jack McInerney in the 79th minute, before Bieler converted Chance Myers pass to give them some breathing room.
“Our mind-set changed after they scored a goal,” said Feilhaber, who made his Sporting debut. “After that we were able to play our game impose ourselves on the road.
“We didn’t play a great game. But to get a 3-1 win on the road, we’ll take it.”
They realized just how fortunate they were.
“It was a rough start for us, but then we found ourselves,” said Zusi. “To get one back right before the half lifted our spirits.
“We came out more aggressive after that. We’ve been in these situations before. But to do this gives us confidence on the road that we can come back from being behind. Statistics in this league are not very high for that. You don’t usually see road teams come back and win games when they give up a goal.
“That shows our character to be able to dig down and do that.”
And make it a smooth ride home.