For most of its 1-1 draw against Chivas USA on Saturday, it appeared there would be no hero for Sporting Kansas City, no one to save it from a disappointing loss that would end its nine-game unbeaten streak.
Peter Vermes’ team had started out flat for the second time in four days, once again falling behind at home in the first half due to tired legs, tired minds or perhaps both. The second half was equally frustrating, thanks to the otherworldly play of goalkeeper Dan Kennedy, a man Sporting simply could not seem to solve.
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But if there’s one thing that has become increasingly clear during Sporting’s recent transformation from also-ran to playoff contender, it’s this: there’s not much quit in this team. They didn’t after a 1-6-1 start to the season, and they certainly didn’t on Saturday, when it took an extra time goal — one strangely reminiscent of a Hail Mary in football — to keep Major League Soccer’s second-longest unbeaten streak alive.
Not that Vermes is complaining, of course.
“You never want to give up the first goal,” said Vermes, whose team has done exactly that in its last two games. “But we’re alive and well.
Indeed. Sporting improved to 5-6-7 with the draw after entering the game in sole possession of fourth place in the Eastern Conference, which meant that if the playoffs started yesterday, Sporting — one of the hottest teams in MLS — would be in.
“I feel like we’re starting to come into our own as a team,” Vermes said.
And while it was forward Omar Bravo who notched the thrilling-yet-improbable equalizer in the 93rd minute against Chivas, you could argue that three other players — defender Matt Besler, midfielder Kei Kamara and forward C.J. Sapong — played the role of your favorite superhero on Saturday.
Start with Besler, who began it all by gaining possession of the ball on Sporting’s half of the field and deciding to launch a longball down the middle after spotting three of his tallest teammates — Kamara (6-foot-3), Birahim Diop (6-foot-3) and C.J. Sapong (6-foot-2) posting up downfield.
“Those guys aren’t bad targets,” Besler said with a laugh. “I felt like a quarterback out there a little bit.”
It continued with the springy Sapong, who leaped high in the air to flick it toward the right side of the goal, were Kamara — who said the moment was like a blur — headed it toward the far post and right at Bravo, who finally sent the announced crowd of 18,467 into a frenzy by heading the ball from six yards out.
“We like to suffer,” Bravo joked later. “But in the end, the goal went in.”
Bravo followed by saying how important it was to continue the unbeaten streak, though there’s a lot of things they can get better at — like these slow starts of late. Sporting also had to rally back from a first-half deficit in its 1-1 home draw against Colorado on Wednesday.
“There’s no excuse for that, really, at home,” Besler said. “We were just a step too late to pretty much everything in the first half.”
That includes Chivas’ lone goal Saturday, which came in the 30th minute when forward Justin Braun sent a perfect through ball to midfielder Nick LaBrocca, who chipped it past Sporting goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen to give Chivas a 1-0 lead.
“I thought the goal was pretty soft on our part,” said Vermes, who added that his team simply gave the Chivas’ players too much room to work with early on.
The second half was a different story, however, as Sporting outshot Chivas 10-3 only to be turned away on a number of occasions by Kennedy, who made several sprawling stops and racked up five saves in the half. But even a red-hot goalkeeper couldn’t save a red-hot team’s last shot, a perfect header by Bravo that redeemed a rather miserable first half of soccer by the home team.
“Out of the last 11 games we’ve playedit was probably the worst half of soccer I’ve seen them play,” Vermes said. “Unfortunately, sometimes that’s going to happenbut the question is how do you react in the second half? And I thought just like (the game game), our reaction was excellent.”
SPORTING KANSAS CITY NOTEBOOK
Former University of Michigan forward Soony Saad finally got a chance to see his new home stadium on Saturday.
And like many, the 18-year old striker came away impressed with the $200 million Livestrong Sporting Park.
“This whole place, it’s amazing,” said Saad, who was awarded to Sporting Kansas City in a special lottery held earlier this week. “I went into the locker room, and that in itself is mind-boggling.”
Saad, who arrived in Kansas City early Friday, led the nation in scoring at Michigan and set a school-record with 19 goals during the 2009-2010 season. He left school to train in Europe and decided to sign with MLS last week, after which he was placed in the lottery — the mechanism by which the league assigns players signed under special circumstances after its annual SuperDraft in January.
Saad reiterated Saturday that as a Midwesterner — he grew up in Michigan — he was particularly happy to be taken by Kansas City.
“This is definitely the best environment for me,” Saad said. “I want to be pushed everyday, and I know I will be here. As long as I’m playing and training everyday, I’m fine.”
•Sporting KC captain Davy Arnaud was also in attendance for Saturday’s game. Arnaud, the club’s longest-tenured player, underwent hernia surgery Wednesday in Los Angeles and is expected to miss 6-to-8 weeks, but seemed to be in good spirits.
“I feel good, I’m glad I got (the surgery) done,” Arnaud said. “Now I’m starting the recovery process. I’m still sore, but I’m feeling better every day since the surgery.”
•Kei Kamara, the team’s leading scorer in 2010, came in as a substitute for midfielder Milos Stojcev in the 38th minute. Kamara has seen his playing time diminish this season with the emergence of Graham Zusi and the offseason addition of designated player Omar Bravo.
“From the way were playing, I felt like from an athletic perspective, Kei could give us a major mismatch over there. And I think he was. From the time he came in there, he gave us a spark. He changed the game a little bit.”
Zusi was replaced in the 80th minute by Birahim Diop after tweaking his ankle. Vermes said its unlikely Zusi will play in the team’s U.S. Open Cup game on Tuesday.