For a while now, Sporting Kansas City manager Peter Vermes has been reminding midfielder Graham Zusi to crash the box.
Zusi has arguably been the team’s best player of the last month — his recent star turn has coincided directly with the team’s recent change in fortune — but Vermes knew that to be a complete player, Zusi – who has already shown an impressive knack for scoring from distance – needed to score in a variety of ways.
Zusi, apparently, heard him loud and clear. And he couldn’t have picked a better time to prove it. With his team trailing the Colorado Rapids by a goal on Wednesday and Sporting KC’s eight-game unbeaten streak in peril, Zusi heeded his coach’s advice and was rewarded with a game-tying goal that helped deliver 1-1 draw before a crowd of 15,209 at Livestrong Sporting Park and spared his team from its first loss in over a month.
“I sometimes get too comfortable and look for the dramatic hit from 25 yards out,” Zusi admitted afterward. “And Peter told me to look for that, but also to crash the box as much as possible.
“I just tried to put myself in a spot where I could get a rebound or something,” Zusi said. “And that’s what happened.”
Indeed. After Colorado goalkeeper Matt Pickens somehow made a save on right-footed blast from forward C.J. Sapong, Zusi — who has scored two goals and racked up three assists in its last five games — once again proved to be in the right place at the right time as he raced in to drill the rebound past Pickens to tie the score at 1-1.
Once Zusi scored, you could literally see the excitement — and relief — on his face. This makes sense, considering the game had been previously marked by a number of near-misses by Sporting KC.
Heck, you can argue it should have taken a one-goal lead in the 12th minute, when forward Teal Bunbury — who was making his first start in three games — somehow shook free in the box and unleashed a rocket that that bounced off the near post.
This caused the pro-Sporting crowd to let loose an audible groan that was duplicated just 10 minutes later when midfielder Kei Kamara — who was also making his first start in three games — sent in a cross toward charging forward Omar Bravo, who came inches away from converting a sliding finish.
However, it wouldn’t be long before Colorado made Sporting KC pay for its near-misses, courtesy of a familiar foe. Forward Conor Casey has been a pain in the rear for Sporting KC dating back to its Wizards days, and he added to his stellar resume against Kansas City in the 32nd minute.
That’s when Colorado defender Tyrone Marshall sent in a free kick toward the middle of the field, where Casey — who was standing just outside the 18-yard box — won the ball and sent in a picture-perfect shot past goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen for a goal that put Colorado ahead by one.
Vermes later called the goal “soft,” but it was still Casey’s fifth goal in seven career games against Sporting KC. The Rapids, however, couldn’t make the lead stand, as Sporting KC drove the game during a second half in which it tied the score and racked up at least two near-goals afterward that nearly gave it its fifth win in its last six MLS games.
Still, you would be hard-pressed to find a Sporting KC player that wasn’t content with a come-from-behind draw that improved its record to 5-6-6 overall, gave Sporting KC sole possession of fourth place in its conference and also extended its run as the hottest squad in MLS.
And the team’s confidence going forward, as Zusi would attest, couldn’t be higher.
“We knew we needed to do it,” Zusi said of the comeback, “and we felt like we could.”
SPORTING KC NOTEBOOK
Wednesday’s game marked only the second time in six matches that second-year forward Teal Bunbury and veteran Kei Kamara have appeared in the starting lineup. Bunbury got the start in place of rookie forward C.J. Sapong, who had played in every game this year, while Kamara got the start for Milos Stojcev, who was also in need of a rest.
Both players were unavailable to talk afterward, but manager Peter Vermes said they each made a positive impact on the game.
“I thought Kei had an excellent game,” Vermes said. “He was unlucky at times where he could have gotten around a guy, and he had great service to the back post to Omar (Bravo). But both sides of the ball, he was good.”
“Teal, the first 30 minutes was very solid,” Vermes said of Bunbury, who was replaced in the 61st minute by Sapong. “He had a great chance (in the first half) and he hit it off the post.”
One person who wasn’t a fan of Colorado’s cautious style of play Wednesday was Vermes, who intimated afterward that while the Rapids’ approach — which basically consisted of them booting the ball downfield and chasing after it — may have been conducive to picking up draws on the road, it was a disservice to fans.
“For me, it’s about entertainment,” Vermes said. “When you go somewhere, it’s your responsibility to also play. I know you want to get a resultbut you can still play the game and drop off and play long ball. But to take as much time as (they did) on every single set piece, it gets old.”
Fullback Seth Sinovic, who has been a revelation since the team signed him as a free agent a few months ago, missed Wednesday’s game with a right hamstring strain. Michael Harrington, a full-time starter at the position a year ago, started in his place.
Team captain Davy Arnaud successfully underwent hernia surgery Wednesday in Los Angeles. He is expected to miss up to six weeks while recovering.