More than an hour before Sporting Kansas City was set to face Columbus on Sunday, Matt Besler led his teammates onto the field. They jogged toward the north end of Sporting Park, where they stood in line to receive their 2013 MLS championship rings in a pregame ceremony.
It was a moment Besler imagined before he even made his MLS debut. And after holding the ring in his hand for the first time, Besler shook hands with his coach, his teammates and eventually the club’s ownership group.
The end of the line drew him to Sporting Club CEO Robb Heineman.
“You have nine more fingers on your hands,” Heineman said.
Besler heard the message. As did his teammates.
The 2013 MLS champions played Sunday like a team in pursuit of another title.
Sporting KC remained unbeaten at home in the 2014 season with a 2-0 win Sunday against visiting Columbus in front of 20,565 fans at Sporting Park, the venue’s 41st consecutive MLS sellout.
Jacob Peterson scored in the 10th minute and Claudio Bieler added the second tally in extra time — the first goal of the season for both players — to vault Sporting KC into a first-place tie with New England and New York in the Eastern Conference.
“I think it’s the best performance of the year for us,” coach Peter Vermes said. “... These guys left everything on the field.
“We were big time today.”
Columbus, 3-2-2, played the final 10 minutes down a man after Wil Trapp was ejected in the 81st minute for a pair of yellow cards. That put a halt to an otherwise worthy comeback effort for the Crew, seeking its first win against Sporting KC in two years.
Columbus played the opening half on its heels, but it emerged with newfound life in the second. It took Sporting KC goalkeeper Eric Kronberg’s top performance of the season to earn his fourth shutout in eight MLS matches. He made four saves.
His best save didn’t even count.
Kronberg stoned a low line-drive shot from Bernardo Anor, then popped up to his knees and saved a rebound chance from Jairo Arrieta before fully regaining his balance. Arrieta was whistled offsides on the play.
“Kronie earned his shutout tonight,” Besler said.
For all its scoring opportunities, though, Columbus couldn’t match Peterson’s early score.
Inserted into the lineup for an injured Sal Zizzo, Peterson was the beneficiary of being in the right place at the right time. A loose ball stumbled to his foot after Paulo Nagamura had his shot blocked and a couple of Columbus defenders deflected the ensuing rebound.
Peterson wasted no time in sending his touch into an open goal, giving Sporting KC an early one-goal advantage.
“It felt damn good,” Peterson said. “I was happy, man. It’s been awhile, at least in MLS play.”
His first league goal since 2012 marked the eighth straight meeting with Columbus that Sporting KC has jumped on the scoreboard at least once in the first half.
It could have been more Sunday.
Seth Sinovic made a run from his left back position to earn a one-on-one chance with Columbus keeper Steve Clark in the first half. But Clark came off his line and won the battle, sliding to deflect Sinovic’s shot.
Columbus was quickly forced out of its noted pressing attack under first-year coach Gregg Berhalter — at least prior to halftime — but its only dangerous sequence of the opening half was nearly enough to equal the score.
After Trapp lofted a pass it the box, Anor headed a clean shot on target. It appeared destined for the back of the net before Kronberg sprawled backward and made a kick save. Columbus players threw their arms into the air to argue the ball crossed the goal line, but replays showed Kronberg used his right knee to keep the shot in play.
“I think the team played very well,” Kronberg said. “Every game, there’s some opportunities we give up. That’s just the nature of the beast. Tonight, they got their shots on frame, and I had to make some saves.”